Selectboard, Trustees updating resolutions for Vilas Bridge

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, the Bellows Falls Village Trustees and Rockingham Selectboard discussed updating their resolutions regarding construction for Vilas Bridge between Walpole, N.H., and Bellows Falls. The state of New Hampshire owns the bridge, and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation is currently accepting public comment for their ten-year Transportation Improvement Plan for 2023-2032. The boards’ resolutions need to be signed by the end of October.

Municipal Manager Scott Pickup suggested adopting both town and village resolutions and sending them to all state and federal officials. He said based on the current schedule for the Vilas Bridge, NHDOT engineering work begins in 2023 with construction slated for 2028. Pickup warned that all phases were currently funded at 50%.

The Vilas Bridge replaced the Tucker Toll Bridge in 1930. It was rehabilitated once in 1974 and closed in 2009. The state of New Hampshire owns 93% of the Vilas Bridge.

In 2006, Representatives Michael Obuchowski of Rockingham and Carolyn Partridge of Windham had called for New Hampshire to conduct necessary engineering studies on the Vilas Bridge and perform actual construction and restoration in 2007. This passed in the House March 28, 2006 and was accepted by the Senate March 31, 2006.

Instead of construction or restoration, the Vilas Bridge was closed in March 2009. When the bridge closed “for repairs,” the cost for rehabilitation was $5 to 6 million. Now, 12 years later, the cost is over $17 million.

In 2006, a traffic study showed 6,500 vehicles crossed the Vilas Bridge daily. In addition to the economic impact to downtown Bellows Falls, the continued closure of the Vilas Bridge raises safety issues without adequate alternate access over the river.

The populations of Bellows Falls and Walpole represent 9,200 people and the communities of Walpole and Bellows Falls Fire and Police Departments are part of a mutual aid-dependent network.

In 2014, Bill Boynton spokesman for the NHDOT stated, “New Hampshire’s position is that we have too many unmet transportation needs and do not currently have the funds to address the Vilas Bridge. A viable option for crossing the Connecticut River is nearby…”

Current crossings include the Church Street Bridge that is now under construction with an “at-grade” rail crossing often handling freight of 100-plus cars and an underpass crossing impassable for height-restricted and tractor-trailer trucks connecting Westminster to Walpole.

Walpole and Bellows Falls also carry an agreement for waste processing. The deterioration of the Vilas Bridge is an environmental safety concern due to the waste pipe running along the underside of the bridge over the Connecticut River. A failed bridge or damaged pipe would be catastrophic to everything south of Bellows Falls, and today local divers and fishermen attest that the Connecticut River is cleaner than it has been in decades.

The Trustees’ resolution is on the agenda for their Oct. 26 meeting, but Village President Deborah Wright urges residents and business owners to write their letters of support or comments. She reminded everyone there is still time to catch the right person’s attention, “Every year… there will always be an opportunity for someone with an ear who will take up the charge in New Hampshire and help us get this taken care of.”

Public comment and letters regarding Vilas Bridge must be sent to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation Engineer by Nov. 8, 2021. Letters can be sent to William E. Watson, P.E. Bureau of Planning and Community Assistance, NHDOT, John O.Morton Building, 7 Hazen Drive, P.O. Box 483 Concord, NH 03302-0483.

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