Rockingham decides: New bridge; old place

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ROCKINGHAM — The Rockingham Select Board decided Tuesday night to have the Vermont Agency of Transportation build the new Depot Street Bridge exactly where the old bridge is.

On a 3-2 vote, the board rejected the option to build the replacement bridge at a new location slightly north of the existing bridge.

The vote comes despite pleas from the business community to improve truck access to The Island, which is viewed as one of the few places in Bellows Falls where new business will be built. The three Select Board members who voted for a new bridge in the old location were Chairman Peter Golec, and members Gaetano Putignano and Ben Masure. Voting for the new "off alignment" location were Susan Hammond and Stefan Golec.

Top at the list of the majority's concerns were the financial ramifications of the old historic bridge, which would revert to town ownership and responsibility if the bridge was built slightly upstream along the Bellows Falls Canal.

The existing Depot Street Bridge is considered historic, and VTrans officials told local officials last week that either preserving the existing 1909 bridge as a pedestrian bridge, or building an exact replica, was the top priority of the Division for Historic Preservation.

Select Board members also voiced concern about the footings of the existing bridge since it was built right on the edge of the Bellows Falls Canal, which now acts as a giant penstock funneling water to the Great Falls hydroelectric station in Bellows Falls. The old location is also slightly cheaper than the new location in terms of the local match to the state's share of the project, with the town contributing $200,000 toward the $3.5 million project. Construction is slated to start in 2023.

The so-called "off-alignment" bridge was estimated to cost $4 million, with a $400,000 local share. Hammond said to her the future maintenance costs of the historic concrete arch bridge was "not a huge concern....there are grants available" for what work would be needed. Plus, she said, converting the Depot Street Bridge to a pedestrian bridge would be a nice benefit.

Kelly Cota Tully urged the board to adopt the new location, and she said it's not just Cota & Cota Oil Co. that needs a new bridge with a better turning access, but also the Greyhouse buses serving the Bellows Falls train station, NAPA auto parts, Green Mountain Power and other small businesses. Tully said the issue is really one of safety. "It's truly a 100-year decision," she said, noting that where the new bridge would be located would have a big effect on future downtown development.

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After the meeting, Tully said only light Cota & Cota trucks, such as pickup trucks, currently use the Depot Street Bridge because it has weight limits. She said their trucks currently use the Bridge Street Bridge. But she said the town, as well as the village of Bellows Falls, wanted to keep heavy truck traffic out of The Square in Bellows Falls, which requires the use of the Bridge Street Bridge, which is also in need of repair.

Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright attended the meeting and urged the board to adopt the new location, which would have resulted in the elimination of a lot of parking in Centennial Park, as well as the park itself. Wright said it was a "100-year decision" that would have a tremendous impact on future economic development on The Island.

The Bellows Falls Area Development Corp. recently demolished the old Robertson Paper mill on The Island and is marketing it for business.

At the tail end of the meeting, Sharon Bocelli, whose auction business is located on Canal Street almost opposite the Depot Street Bridge, castigated town officials for failing to notify her of the pending bridge issue. Bocelli never said which location she favored, but she said the town was not being considerate of its residents and taxpayers.

"It's so disrespectful," said Bocelli, who told the board that she had cleaned up the contamination at her property, which she called "a $450,000 process," and she warned the town not to spread its contamination onto her property.

The state believes there is hazardous material on the west side of the bridge, under Canal Street. Town Manager Wendy Harrison apologized for not contacting Bocelli personally, but said the matter had been discussed for months and had been the subject of numerous newspaper articles. The decision came as the board held its annual visit to the Rockingham Meeting House Tuesday, and board members sat in one of the pig-pen pews and discussed their decision, with Chairman Peter Golec standing below the meeting house's distinctive high pulpit.

"I don't preach to anyone," Golec joked before the meeting began.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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