Walpole, Rockingham Selectboards discuss Vilas Bridge

Vilas Bridge
Vilas Bridge between Walpole, N.H. and Bellows Falls, Vt. Photo provided

WALPOLE, N.H. – The Walpole and Rockingham Selectboards met at the Walpole Town Hall Thursday, Nov. 7 to discuss the future of the Vilas Bridge and begin a collaboration between the communities. J.B. Mack, principal planner of the Southwest Regional Planning Commission in Keene, facilitated the discussion, noting there was both a need and desire to address the Vilas Bridge. Rockingham Selectboard members Peter Golec, Stefan Golec, Susan Hammond, and Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison were in attendance.

Both town planning boards had met earlier with issues of mutual concern agreeing on two significant areas: the Vilas Bridge and recreational improvement.

The Vilas Bridge is now on the 10-year plan for 2021-2031. Every two years, the state of New Hampshire updates the 10-year improvement plans. The Vilas Bridge was closed in 2009 due to deterioration of the reinforced concrete deck and last rehabilitated in 1974. In 2010, the bridge was put on the 10-year highway plan by former Governor John Lynch and said to be closed until at least 2015. New Hampshire owns 93% of the Vilas Bridge, which has kept the fate of the bridge tied to the state and NHDOT.

Steve Dalessio of the Walpole Selectboard admitted Walpole seemed less affected economically by the closure of the bridge than Bellows Falls, but the issue for Walpole is the “environmental impact if the sewer line breaks.”

Stefan Golec agreed with Dalessio, but pointed out that the sewer line impacts both the environment and economy for Walpole.

Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox mentioned grants could be pursued by the Northern Border Regional Commission and that Bellows Falls is eligible for forestry grants due to the loss of the paper industry with the recent demolition of the Robertson Paper Mill. Fox shared that the amount of the grant would be doubled if both states applied together. However, as “a shovel ready project,” Fox explained that the funds must be granted within two years of the project start date.

Harrison added that it would be helpful to have a date from NHDOT on anticipated preliminary engineering reports for funding sources.

The NBRC invests in community and economic development in distressed counties of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Six counties including Cheshire in New Hampshire and all 14 counties in Vermont are considered eligible service territory.

Dalessio said Walpole officials would agree to sign a joint letter to the state of New Hampshire with Walpole’s focus on the environmental impacts, suggesting Bellows Falls focus on economic need. Harrison said the Bellows Falls Village Trustees were also interested in signing the letter, adding other factors were public safety and mutual aid.

Hammond asked about the Arch Bridge lights, but no decisions were made to share electricity costs. Both Selectboards were interested in having more meetings together and agreed a community partnership would benefit everyone.

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