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WESTMINSTER — The $4.1 million rehabilitation of the bridge over the Saxtons River on Route 121 has been suspended, after the contractor found the structural steel was in worse shape than originally expected.

The bridge — and Route 121, which is the main route between Bellows Falls and Saxtons River — was slated to be closed next Monday for the next two months, sending area residents and emergency services on a long detour.

But the project has been suspended for the time being, said Vermont Agency of Transportation project manager J.B. McCarthy on Tuesday.

McCarthy said that the state and the town of Westminster, which owns the bridge, would be meeting Wednesday to discuss the next steps.

McCarthy said it wasn’t clear whether there would be enough time to complete the project on the 220-foot bridge this year, and whether the original contractor, Renaud Brothers Inc., was available.

McCarthy said it was workers from Renaud who discovered the deterioration as they were getting ready to remove the bridge’s concrete deck.

He said that Renaud had installed scaffolding under the 1940 bridge, and were chiseling off the rust from the main girders when they discovered the steel was in very poor condition. Renaud was doing preparation work while waiting for its subcontractor to demolish the concrete deck, a delay which had originally pushed back the closing by a week to June 27.

McCarthy said Renaud informed the state of the problem last week, and at the state’s request last Friday did a 14-inch core drill through the concrete deck to another location on the steel girder and also found serious deterioration there.

“It’s really strange,” said McCarthy, who said that the other steel components of the bridge were in “really good” condition. He said the substructure of the bridge, including the abutments and piers in the river, were in “very good” shape.

He said the Renaud crew was using a “chisel hammer or vibration hammer” to remove the rust and discovered the extent of the problem.

Beams in 1940 were riveted together of different steel plates, and it is the top plate that is in such bad shape, McCarthy. He said the state had seen the edges of the top plate were rusty, but didn’t think the steel hidden by concrete would be in such poor shape.

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“There wasn’t much steel there,” he said.

The bridge, which had ratings of 4 and 5 after state inspection, will now be inspected to determine whether the weight load on the bridge should be changed until the bridge can be rehabilitated, he said.

The bridge, which is called Bridge No. 5, is made up of two 220-foot steel girders, McCarthy said, which makes partial closure to keep traffic flowing during the repair impossible, requiring the detour.

Under the plan, residents can use Back Westminster Road, which parallels Interstate 91, or Saxtons River and Grafton residents can use Rockingham Hill Road or Pleasant Valley Road to get to Bellows Falls.

McCarthy said it would have been impossible for state inspectors to keep the interior steel damage from a visual inspection.

It is not unusual, he said, that rehabilitation projects can uncover more extensive — and expensive — repairs. The town rejected an all-new bridge as too expensive.

As it is, Westminster is only paying 2.5 percent of the $4.1 million project, due to incentives from the state to close the road and bridge entirely during construction, and accept detours.

The federal government is paying 80 percent of the cost, and the state is picking up 17.5 percent, McCarthy said earlier.

Interim Westminster Town Manager Alison Bigwood couldn’t be reached for comment.

McCarthy said it would be a joint decision between the state and the town about how to proceed.

McCarthy said that the decision was made not to demolish the deck, even as the demolition subcontractor was moving into place, because “we couldn’t take the risk of having the bridge closed for a year and a half.”

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.