Board split over future of Depot St. bridge
BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham Select Board was split last Tuesday over what route to take about the deteriorating, 110-year-old Depot Street Bridge.
The bridge crosses the historic Bellows Falls Canal, and the state Agency of Transportation wants to either replace it in its current location or at a new "off-alignment" slightly north or upstream from the current location. The new location would help keep heavy truck traffic out of The Square, as well as eliminate a sharp 90-degree turn at the corner of Canal and Depot streets.
The issue boils down to money and the development potential of The Island, which is accessed via the Depot Street Bridge and another bridge that isn't in great shape either - the Bridge Street Bridge, which is located near the Bellows Falls Post Office.
Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the town's share of a bridge in the new location would be $352,000, while replacing the existing bridge would mean a local contribution of $312,000. Costs range from $3.4 million to $3.5 million. If a bridge in a new location is built, the town would then be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the existing bridge. Harrison called the choice "a no brainer" because the new location would provide better access to The Island, and if contaminated soil was discovered, the town would be eligible for brownfields funding. But, she acknowledged, "it's a big decision."
Rockingham Select Board Chairman Peter Golec was joined with Select Board members Gaetano Putignano and Ben Masure raising questions about the complete costs and long-term ramifications of a new location, including the loss of 42 parking spaces at Centennial Park. Golec and the others were concerned with the costs the town would have to assume for the old bridge, which would be converted to a pedestrian and bike bridge.
Select Board members Stefan Golec and Susan Hammond seemed inclined to endorse the new location, saying they were thinking what would be the access needs of businesses in 50 to 75 years.
No decision was made Tuesday night, but the town manager said the Agency of Transportation needs to know the town's preference in the coming months so the town doesn't lose its spot on the list of funded projects. Harrison said the bridge would be built or rehabilitated in the summer of 2023.
Peter Golec noted there is only one major business on The Island - Cota and Cota, a fuel oil company. But he said access was not just via the Depot Street Bridge. He said it was unrealistic to expect a large company to move onto vacant property on The Island. The old Robertson Paper was recently demolished, creating a large vacant lot.
Peter Golec said he wanted an updated scoping report on the project from the state Transportation engineers, addressing such issues as potential contamination sites on The Island, and the actual condition of Depot Street Bridge, and how much money would be needed to rehabilitate it for the project limited use.
"We're talking a lot of money here," he said.
Select Board member Stefan Golec said he supports the new location and he said it would help existing businesses on The Island. He said the new location would be "making a smart investment now."
"Thirty-forty-fifty-sixty years down the line....I like the off-alignment," said Hammond, referring to the new location.
But Putignano said the two scenarios had heavy financial implications for taxpayers, with residents paying "twice as much" with the new location, because of the ongoing maintenance costs of the old bridge.
"If we do the 'off-alignment,' we own the old one," said Masure, "and it could end up costing a lot of money."
Putignano said a new bridge is needed, either at the old location or a new location. Harrison said Green Mountain Railroad had lost a potential client because of the bridge and turning concerns.
Resident Ellen Howard, the former longtime zoning officer for the town, said she was opposed to the new alignment since it would destroy most of the parking at Centennial Park. A town road would also have to be built through the park to serve the new bridge, she said, and she said it was likely it would turn up toxic contamination. Plus, she said, the town needs to do more work on the Bridge Street Bridge.
Kelly Cota Tully said the company just wants access to be maintained to The Island. "We want the easiest for everybody," she said. She said the turning radius at intersections was the company's biggest concern.
If the new alignment is adopted, Canal Street would be converted to one-way traffic, with more pedestrian amenities.
Harrison said she would ask state officials to try and attend the board's next meeting - slated for August - to answer the board's questions.
Contact Susan Smallheer at email@example.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.
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