BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – It has been a long 13 years since the Vilas Bridge, which connects Bellows Falls to Walpole, was closed by officials of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation due to a lack of funds to repair it. However, circumstances seem to finally be headed in the right direction after additional federal infrastructure funds were recently signed into law.
The infusion of additional funds and the introduction of the “10-year New Hampshire transportation plan,” which requires New Hampshire legislative approval, has prompted New Hampshire (which owns 93% of the bridge, and Vermont 7%) to allocate nearly $18 million to repair the dilapidated Vilas Bridge in 2028-2029, with initial engineering to begin in 2023 and preliminary construction work in 2026.
Last year, New Hampshire Transportation officials placed the Vilas Bridge under the 10-year plan but with only 50% funding attached to the project, in hopes that Vermont would provide the other 50%. Although Vermont denied the request, Vermont Transportation has offered help in the past. In 2013, VTrans offered to loan New Hampshire funds to repair the bridge, if in turn, New Hampshire would fund Vermont’s part of the repairs at a later date. Unfortunately, an agreement could not be reached.
Ironically enough, it was Rockingham Town officials, led by Rockingham Selectboard member Bonnie North, who began researching what new federal infrastructure funding might be available to help repair the bridge, while also coordinating with Walpole and New Hampshire state officials on how to tap into these funds.
Now, with the new federal funding, the long awaited project has been fully endorsed by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, the N.H. Executive Council, and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. The last hurdle will be the final approval of the 10-year plan by the New Hampshire Legislature.
Although the Vilas Bridge – which was built in 1930 – is not a particularly long or large structure, spanning approximately 635 feet long and 25 feet wide, complications may arise with the immediate area surrounding the project. There is not an abundant amount of space near the bridge, making it more difficult for construction workers to set up their staging area.
What’s more, there is also a set of sewage pipes that run under the existing bridge to the Bellows Falls sewage treatment plant. These wastewater lines, along with the overall significance of the historic bridge, make this project a rather delicate one.
Additionally, there has been a growing concern from local Vermont communities over the years of delays, because the bridge links downtown Bellows Falls to New Hampshire. With the bridge being unavailable, the local economy is affected every day by the rerouting of potential consumers. There are also growing environmental issues regarding the “overuse” of the adjacent Church Street Bridge. The final decision on the plans to repair the Vilas Bridge is pending a legislative decision.