Depot Street Bridge

Depot Street Bridge in Bellows Falls.

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BELLOWS FALLS — How many bridges does the village need to cross the Bellows Falls Canal to get to The Island?

Peter Golec, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, asked that question last week, during the latest discussion about what route the town should take in replacing the 100-year-old Depot Street Bridge.

Golec said he is beginning to question the necessity of three bridges crossing the canal, in a short distance, and he said his research showed that there really isn’t much truck traffic going to The Island.

The three bridges would be the new, off-alignment bridge, a new pedestrian bridge next to the existing Depot Street Bridge to connect The Island with downtown Bellows Falls, and the existing Bridge Street Bridge.

One large business, Cota and Cota Oil, is located on The Island, as well as the Bellows Falls train station, which also serves as the depot for the Greyhound bus. There are a handful of small businesses located in various buildings on The Island, ranging from artists studios to a commercial kitchen, and a local radio station.

Golec said the redevelopment of the former Robertson Paper mill site has been less than successful, and he noted one potential tenant has recently backed out.

Even when Chroma Technology was thinking of re-locating its entire operation to The Island, it would have required little truck traffic, Golec said.

The future use of The Island should dictate what bridge — and at what location — the town should choose next month, some board members said.

Gary Fox, the Rockingham development director, acknowledged the problems in getting businesses to come to the former Robertson Paper site, but he said if the town doesn’t make investments in infrastructure, the town will never be attractive to new business.

He said replacing the Depot Street Bridge is a “once in 70 year opportunity” that could help bring business back to downtown Bellows Falls.

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The Rockingham board, presented with four options by the Agency of Transportation, appears to be leaning to two in particular — replacing the current bridge with a steel truss bridge, or building a new bridge further upstream, which would cost almost double the steel truss bridge.

A wild card in the cost estimates, which range from $8 million to $4.6 million, is that the town is responsible for the costs of cleaning up any environmental contamination, even though the state or the railroad owns the land, according to Jon Griffin, a project engineer with the state agency.

Griffin tried to reassure the board that the engineers could minimize the costs of the clean up by how the bridge is designed, but access to the new bridge could cut across a portion of an old railyard.

Riverfront property is very attractive to residential developers, Select Board member Rick Cowan said, and Fox said that while The Island is zoned for industrial use, residential is allowed.

Fox recently received a $35,000 grant from the Windham Regional Commission to hire a consultant to evaluate The Island for its best use and what the community wants to see there.

The Island is currently served by three bridges and all three are in terrible shape: the Vilas Bridge, which crosses the Connecticut River to New Hampshire, is closed; the Depot Street Bridge is crumbling and posted for very low weight limits, and the Bridge Street Bridge, next to the Bellows Falls Post Office, is due to be replaced or overhauled in the near future.

Fox said there would be a public meeting this Thursday to discuss the future use of The Island.

The Rockingham Select Board is expected to make a decision on the bridge location at its July 7 meeting.

Construction wouldn’t take place until 2024 at the earliest, and the town would likely have to have a townwide vote on a bond issue to pay for the town’s share of the project.

Two years ago, the Rockingham board voted to replace the existing bridge with a similar design in the same location, rather than build a new, more expensive bridge, further north. But unexpected financial complications due to the potential impact on the downstream Great River Hydroelectric station made the state and town reevaluate that bridge design and location.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.