BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Tuesday, July 7, the Rockingham Selectboard passed the motion 3-2 to choose the option for an off-alignment bridge with removal of existing concrete Depot Street Bridge and an added pedestrian bridge. Elijah Zimmer, Rick Cowan, and Bonnie North voted for it, with Chair Peter Golec and Susan Hammond against.
Hammond said her vote was due to cost and “all the work that needs to be done.”
Municipal Manager Scott Pickup explained that Vanesse Hangen Brustlin and the Vermont Agency of Transportation had no new information on any of the options and they looked forward to the board’s decision.
Pickup said he had discussed concerns over possible dam shutdowns and the scarcity event fees with the Vermont League of Towns and Cities. Insurance was available to cover the town from astronomical costs if the dam were shut down at any time throughout the construction. Cowan asked if liability was different depending upon the bridge design.
Golec said, “The risk is there no matter which option we choose.”
The board had considered two designs that involved removal and demolition of the existing concrete arch. The other was a steel truss to replace the currently located concrete arch and include a sidewalk for pedestrian access.
Cowan asked how long a new bridge had been discussed.
Golec replied that it was several years. “We lowered the weight limit… at least two years [ago].”
Cowan said, “Now is the time to make a decision… I wouldn’t want to lose our place in the line.”
Pickup agreed “There are pressures on VTrans… We are putting pressure on them for additional monies, for our other bridge on Bridge Street.”
Cowan made the motion to choose Option 3, the off-alignment bridge with pedestrian bridge. He said this option “represents the best long-term value, nice pedestrian connection, and solves traffic problems.”
North seconded Cowan’s motion. She added, “The numbers are really daunting, and I don’t think any of us take this lightly.” She compared it to buying a house as “an investment for your family, your children, and your children’s children… That’s the investment we are being called to make here for Rockingham with this decision.”
Golec opposed the design. “My money is on the steel truss bridge.” He said bridge engineers suggested using the steel truss. “I’ve been counting trucks. There are very few trucks going on that island right now.”
He also added, “We just got an 8.5 cent increase on the school tax,” and suggested using the reserve funds set aside for Depot Street Bridge. He reminded board members that VTrans and VHB had said the truss bridge would be angled to make it easier for truck traffic. He did not agree with having three bridges over the canal.
“Look at the long picture, the cost and going forward the budgets you will be passing.” Golec concluded, “In my opinion, I don’t see the need to spend $1.8 million.”
When asked about fiancing terms, Pickup said payments would begin in 2024 with roughly $30,000 per year on a 30-year loan with a fixed municipal rate of 2.85%. He said there were a lot of factors with reserve funds and other potential cost reductions.
Hammond said, “I like the idea of the off-alignment and pedestrian bridge, but the price tag…” Her biggest concern was “We have to think about the other bridges.”
Elijah Zimmer said, “I prefer the idea of the off-alignment with the pedestrian bridge. I think we just need to look forward to what we want the island to be… If it’s our priority to try to redevelop that island area, we should make investments.”
Fox said to look at vision and concept. He said, “Redevelopment will allow the island to carry itself. If we continue to not invest in infrastructure, [it will] remain unattractive and won’t ever carry its weight in tax value. If we invest and redevelop it, the increased tax value will pay for itself in decades versus the 70-year [life span] of the bridges.” This would be a “solid plan to meet vision and be fiscally responsible for the long-term.”
Hammond said, “We are investing potentially $1.3 million more for a bridge. I’d rather put that extra investment on the island. I don’t think it adds enough value.”
Cowan clarified that the difference is actually $800,000.
Zimmer reminded the board, “If we do this off-alignment bridge, we don’t have to build a temporary bridge to make [the island] accessible” during the future Bridge Street Bridge construction.
Hammond asked if the turning radius would prohibit larger trucks.
Fox said, “It’s not just the turning radius… The off-alignment provides an easy traffic flow.” He referred to Bridge Street into the square and the old Arch Street bridge during commuter hours. He said that with the island redevelopment there would be increased economic activity and, “That sharp turn creates a situtation that will backup traffic.” He said by also avoiding truck traffic through the square “it’s a more attractive scenario.”
Fox also mentioned economic development aids in leveraging public and private funding.
Zimmer pointed out that the proposed pedestrian bridge was a continental prefabricated truss, lightweight, and should not have any effect on the walls of the canal. He said also the maintenance would be minimal and the bridge would have a long life span.
Cowan agreed that the pedestrian bridge over the canal enhanced quality of life and was a connection to the train station and the Waypoint Center.
North said particular grant programs could help with the cost of the pedestrian bridge.
Also during the July 7 meeting, the Selectboard set the fiscal year 2022 tax rate for 1.0887. The Selectboard’s next meeting is Wednesday, Aug. 4.