Troubled bridge; piece of history

Thursday October 25, 2012

It has been more than three and a half years since officials, citing deterioration from years of use, closed the Villas Bridge, which connected Bellows Falls with North Walpole, N.H.

At the time, Bellows Falls merchants decried the closure, saying the loss of traffic had negatively affected local business.

A year later, New Hampshire officials signed off on the state’s 10-year highway plan, which meant that, at the earliest, work on Vilas Bridge would begin in 2015.

"I can’t give any guarantees," Mark Richardson, from the bridge design bureau at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said at the time. "There is a possibility the project could be delayed or shifted. We would like to keep it at 2015, but I don’t see it happening before then."

It should be noted that estimates for the Vilas Bridge rehabilitation fall between $3.5 million and $6 million.

More recently, the bridge was dropped entirely from New Hampshire’s 10-year plan.

Which is why the news from last week - that the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance added Vilas to a list of seven structures it will save - was so enthusiastically received.

The Seven to Save was created in 2006 "to focus attention and resources on significant historic properties in New Hampshire that are threatened by neglect, deterioration, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, and/or insensitive public policy," according to the alliance’s website.

And Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh hopes this designation will keep the bridge a priority to New Hampshire officials.

While another bridge exists a little further up the Connecticut River, there’s no denying the affect the closing of the Vilas bridge has had on the downtown Bellows Falls area. Where traffic had once flowed regularly past merchants’ storefronts, new traffic patterns allow for commuters to all but avoid the area.

If that weren’t reason enough, the Vilas Bridge is also part of local history.

"Few know that this bridge was once a covered bridge over the Connecticut River and, at one time called The Tucker Toll Bridge," Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance Executive Director Rosemarri Roth told the Reformer. "It was the first bridge to span the Connecticut River. (It) was constructed as a two-span open-spandrel, arch bridge in 1930 and the roughly $67,000 to build it was donated by Charles S. Vilas. He died before it was completed and dedicated as a ‘Symbol of Friendship’ between New Hampshire and Vermont."

Or, consider the power of a neighborly promise. In 1993, then-Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation Charles O’Leary wrote a letter to the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, proclaiming that the Vilas Bridge would be removed only under exceptional circumstances (like a natural disaster).

As some officials have suggested, New Hampshire made a commitment to maintaining the bridge, and has failed to do so.

We would agree.

It’s no secret money is tight these days. We know the Granite State can’t drop everything and fix Vilas Bridge tomorrow. But, at the same time, placing the bridge on a long-term list, then dropping it from said list, seems unreasonable. We applaud the measures taken by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, and urge New Hampshire state officials to work with their counterparts in Vermont to figure out a way to reopen the Vilas Bridge - if not completely, then perhaps as a single-lane or pedestrian span.


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