Developing a vision for The Island

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HINSDALE, N.H. — There were a lot of questions during Thursday's meeting of the Existing Bridges Subcommittee, but most of them had to do with who is going to be responsible for the two bridges that connect Hinsdale and Brattleboro when they are closed to traffic and how their upkeep is going to be paid for.

According to J.B. Mack, principal planner for the Southwest Region Planning Commission in Keene, N.H., the plan is for the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation to share maintenance responsibilities for the repurposed Route 119 bridges, and that's a discussion that has not occurred yet.

"It's kind of up in the air as to what would happen," said Mack.

The Existing Bridges Subcommittee is a subcommittee of the Hinsdale-Brattleboro Bridge Project Advisory Committee, tasked with providing information to the Project Lead Team, which itself is tasked with determining the future of the Anna Marsh Hunt Bridge and the Charles Dana Bridge, which have connected Hinsdale and Brattleboro since 1920.

Those two bridges are slated for closure when a new bridge over the Connecticut River is opened sometime in the spring of 2023. Construction of the new bridge, which will be just south of the current bridges, was due to start this year, but has been delayed until next year. Project Manager Donald Lyford told the Keene Sentinel in early May that the construction start time had to be pushed back because Vermont needs more time to buy land for the project on its side of the river.

"This discussion about the ongoing future maintenance is going to be worked out not necessarily here," said Patrick Moreland, assistant town manager for Brattleboro. "Here we're working on a vision potentially for what could be the appropriate future use [of the bridges]. That discussion as to future maintenance cost-sharing between New Hampshire and Vermont is going to occur elsewhere."

"I would expect that the towns' elected officials might be involved in that discussion," said Mack.

He also said that before the bridges are opened to pedestrians only, the states of New Hampshire and Vermont "are to minimally rehabilitate them."

"N.H. DOT has been really aggressive in going after BUILD grants ... to try to get funding to make that happen," he said.

The Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program is a federally funded program for "investments in surface transportation infrastructure," according to the U.S. DOT's website.

WHO OWNS THE ROAD?

Mack also noted that while Route 119 from the traffic light at George's Field to the Charles Dana Bridge is currently a state road, when the new bridge is opened, that stretch of road, about one-third of a mile, will no longer be the state's responsibility. That raised the question of who would own the road and be responsible for maintaining it.

"So you will be forcing the town to take on the maintenance?" asked Hinsdale Highway Superintendent Frank Podlenski.

But Jill Collins, Hinsdale's town administrator, said the town has to agree to take ownership of the road and the state can't force the responsibility on to Hinsdale.

"More discussion needs to happen on that question," said Mack. "At some point, DOT and the town are going to need to talk through this issue."

There is also lighting on the bridges that the town of Hinsdale pays for. Whether or not the lighting remains after the bridges are closed to vehicles is another open question.

Though no representative from Great River Hydro, which owns Vernon Dam, was in attendance, according to Kathy Urffer, the River Steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, Great River will have to prepare a recreational plan as part of the upcoming relicensing of the dam. She said the towns should consult with Great River about what it might bring to the table as far as taking care of The Island.

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"I could see them as a possible partner for both towns for considering what the possibilities are for The Island," said Urffer.

THE ISLAND

Also discussed was whether the Department of Transportation should clear The Island of overgrowth to prevent people from camping there. The Island sits in the middle of the Connecticut River between the two towns, and a portion of Route 119 between the two bridges was built on fill that was poured in over the sediment deposited there. Until the Vernon Dam was built in 1909, The Island actually had structures on it and was a center of activity in the 1800s and early 1900s. Island Park, as it was then known, had a 1,200-seat grandstand, a baseball field, a pavilion for dancing, movies and bowling, and a soda fountain and ice cream parlor. It also had a boat launch and was open every day of the week during the summer. Vaudeville acts, orchestras, bands and movies played in the pavilion.

But those days are long gone. The retention of water behind Vernon Dam caused much of The Island to be flooded and what's left has become an encampment for the local homeless population and is often littered with garbage and old clothing and tents. It's also become a hiding spot for drug users, who go there to get high and then leave behind items like intravenous needles.

From January 2017 to June 2018, officers with the Hinsdale Police Department responded to 300 calls on The Island, 140 for motor vehicle accidents and motorist assists and 160 for other issues such as drug use, suicide complaints and even an armed robbery. The Brattleboro Police Department doesn't keep statistics on how often it responds to The Island because the town of Hinsdale owns it.

"The police departments of Brattleboro and Hinsdale have a mutual agreement through which we assist each other in providing emergency police services if needed," said Capt. Mark Carignan, of the Brattlboro Police Department. "When mutual aid is requested, it is usually only for a brief time. Statistical reporting and other administrative matters remain with Hinsdale."

During a sweep of The Island in April, Hinsdale Police Chief Todd Faulkner said he'd like to see the state clear all the vegetation from The Island to stop people from camping there.

During the Thursday meeting, Mack noted Faulkner's concern, but also noted that the only thing holding The Island together is the vegetation. Otherwise it might just get washed away by the river.

Urffer said the use of The Island might change once the bridges are closed to vehicles.

"You can make the argument that the homeless encampments are happening there because people are driving by at 40 miles an hour and are not, in fact, walking through or riding their bikes through," she said. "So, I wouldn't make assumptions. As people move through the space differently, the whole area is going to be used differently. What we see now is not necessarily what it's going to look like. It will be a pretty profound change."

The committee also heard about various ideas for the bridges and The Island, including a boat launch area, a venue for small concerts and dances, and maybe art festivals and the like, but mainly for pedestrian access to the towns on both sides of the river. Another concern that was raised but not answered is if The Island does again become a center of activity, where is everyone going to park?

"Before you develop a vision for the bridges you have to know what are we working with," said Mack.

MAINTENANCE

When asked if all this planning was in vain because of the age of the bridges, David Scott, In-House Design Chief for N.H. DOT, said they are contracting with a consultant firm to determine the future maintenance needs of the bridges and how long they might last with only foot traffic traveling on them.

In 2018, both bridges were "red listed" by the state, which means they are functionally obsolete. That doesn't mean the bridges are unsafe, said Scott, but that they don't meet federal specifications for height and width.

"The bridges are inspected every six months," he said. "If anything is noted, we will 'downpost' or have our maintenance forces head out there immediately." Downposting the bridge would limit the size of vehicles that can use the bridge, but Scott said there is no indication the load limit needs to lowered.

The Project Advisory Committee meets June 5 at 1 p.m. in the conference room of the Hinsdale Police Department. The meeting is open to the public.

Bob Audette can be conatacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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