BELLOWS FALLS — The good news is the Vilas Bridge is still on New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s 10-year construction list.
The bad news is New Hampshire has set aside only about $10 million of the estimated $17.7 million cost to repair the bridge.
That was the news from Rockingham Town Manager Scott Pickup last week as he gave the Rockingham Select Board an update on the long-stalled project. The bridge, which links Bellows Falls and Walpole, N.H., was closed by the state of New Hampshire in 2009, citing the bridge’s poor condition. Since then, the Vermont communities have been trying to get New Hampshire to do something about it, since the Vilas Bridge links downtown Bellows Falls to New Hampshire.
The bridge, built in 1930, is considered historic and is a two-span concrete open spandrel bridge. Earlier in the site’s history, there were successive covered bridges, operated by tolls.
Pickup said the New Hampshire Ten-Year Plan did designate that pre-engineering work would begin in two years, and that construction was still scheduled for 2028. But he warned the Select Board Wednesday night that such transportation priority lists “don’t stay static.”
Gary Fox, the Rockingham development director, said in the case of the Vilas Bridge, New Hampshire owns 92 percent of the bridge, and Vermont 7.5 percent. The boundary is at the high water mark on the Vermont side, he said. The percentages vary from location to location, Fox said.
“It varies from bridge to bridge,” he said.
Pickup said the fact that the bridge is on the 10-year priority list is “a starting point for communication.”
He said the list also includes two years set aside after the engineering work is completed for “right of way” work, which puzzled him.
“No one is moving the bridge,” he said.
But Select Board member Susan Hammond noted that the Green Mountain Railroad is immediately adjacent to the Vilas Bridge, which may be the source of the request.
Hammond urged Pickup to “continue our efforts” to get the bridge repaired and reopened.
The Arch Bridge, which is about a mile upstream from the Vilas Bridge, is currently being repaired itself, and Route 12 north of North Walpole is currently closed because of deteriorating of the roadbed, putting a lot more traffic over the Arch Bridge.
Pickup said New Hampshire had apparently set aside funding for about half of the $17.7 million that the Granite State has estimated would be needed for the Vilas Bridge. Since the bridge closed, the state of Vermont has made various offers about helping to fund the repairs, or pay for the repairs with the understanding it would get reimbursed by New Hampshire, and nothing has been resolved.
Earlier this year, the town of Rockingham made a major push to get federal COVID-19 funds to pay for the bridge repair.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation held a hearing in Keene, N.H. last Tuesday about its plan and it solicited comment about the public’s priorities.
While projects in Keene took top billing, the chairwoman of the Walpole Select Board urged New Hampshire officials to do something about the bridge, since it carries an important sewer line that serves much of Walpole’s commercial businesses, and pipes the sewage to the Bellows Falls sewage treatment plant. Walpole does not have a sewage treatment plant.
According to the Keene Sentinel, Walpole Select Board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayberry read a statement and followed it up with supporting letters from her fellow board members, Peggy Pschirrer and Steve Dalessio.
Mayberry said she is concerned about the impact on the Connecticut River if the pipe breaks, if the bridge could no longer support it. She noted that the costs for clean up would rest on New Hampshire, since that state owns the river.