Walpole, Rockingham agree to push for Vilas Bridge repairs
WALPOLE, N.H. — The towns of Rockingham, Vt., and Walpole agreed Thursday night to write a joint letter to New Hampshire transportation officials about the need to repair and reopen the Vilas Bridge, which connects the two towns.
The historic spandrel-arch bridge over the Connecticut River has been closed since 2009, when the New Hampshire Department of Transportation said the bridge failed an inspection.
The two towns have many mutual interests: the Vilas Bridge carries the sewer line that serves much of the commercial development in Walpole along Route 12 — to the Bellows Falls sewage treatment plant.
And merchants in the village of Bellows Falls said business has fallen off a lot since the Vilas Bridge was closed.
The two communities are already served by a bridge — the so-called New Arch Bridge, which is less than a mile upstream from the closed Vilas Bridge, which was directly connected to downtown.
"Rockingham will take the lead and we'll add to it," said Walpole Select Board Chairman Stephen Dalessio, at the end of an hour-long discussion.
The two major impacts on the closing of the bridge are environmental and economic: if the bridge were to fail and take the sewer line with it, dozens of Walpole businesses, including the shopping areas along Route 12 would be without sewage treatment.
Rockingham Select Board member Stefan Golec said if the bridge collapses, the sewer line would go with it, putting a multitude of Walpole and North Walpole businesses in economic peril.
Walpole Select Board member Peggy Pschirrer said even if a piece of the concrete bridge fell and damaged the sewage pipeline, the environmental impacts would be great, and she and others suggested that the environmental impact was the best argument to make.
Dalessio said Walpole had explored options to moving the sewer line to a possible crossing near Green Street, but he said only preliminary engineering work had been done.
The economic impact is mostly on the village of Bellows Falls, said J.B. Mack, the principal planner with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission in Keene, N.H.
Mack said while the Vilas Bridge is on the N.H. Department of Transportation's 10-year plan, there was a definite sentiment from state officials that about half of the funding for the repair to the bridge would have to come from a source other than the state of New Hampshire.
Vermont officials had several years ago offered to "front" the money for the repairs, with the understanding that it would eventually be paid back.
The state of New Hampshire owns about 75 percent of the Vilas Bridge, since New Hampshire owns to the high water mark on the western shore of the river, and as a result, New Hampshire has historically had to pay the lion's share of Connecticut River bridge work.
Mack said the New Hampshire-Vermont boundary is unique, since the Maine-New Hampshire bridge and river boundary is midway, with costs shared 50-50, and he said he didn't know why New Hampshire historically wanted greater ownership of the river.
Dalesio said he believes that the issue would only be resolved on the gubernatorial level, with an agreement and meeting between N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.
Deborah Wright, the Bellows Falls village president, said no mention was made of the historic nature of the Vilas Bridge, and promises that it would be maintained.
New Hampshire state officials dropped the ball with its neglect of the bridge, she said.
Mack said one suggestion — that the Vilas Bridge just be reopened for pedestrians — wasn't feasible since any repairs needed for pedestrians would equal the cost of car and truck traffic repairs.
In addition to the Vilas Bridge issue, Mack also mentioned the re-licensing of the Great Falls hydroelectric station at Bellows Falls and North Walpole, which he said presents an opportunity for the two towns to push for additional access to the Connecticut River, as well as increased recreational opportunities.
The issue of paying for the lights on the New Arch Bridge, which is also called the Church Street Bridge, wasn't resolved. The state of New Hampshire has refused to pay for the lights which illuminate the sidewalk on the bridge.
Mack said Hinsdale and Brattleboro, Vt., were working to solve the same lighting problem on the new bridge being built between their communities. They are also exploring solar, but maintenance costs can be higher than traditional lighting, he said.
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