MIKE FAHER , Brattleboro Reformer
GUILFORD -- A divided Guilford Selectboard on Monday lent its support to a controversial plan to shut the Route 5 bridge entirely while the deteriorating span is replaced.
The board voted 2-1 to back the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s recommended option of closing the bridge for about a month rather than allowing restricted traffic flow during the project.
State officials have said bridge closure will keep costs down and will significantly shorten the project, points that resonated with Guilford Selectboard member Anne Rider.
"I felt we could plan and do a four-week (closure) much more efficiently and effectively, and it seemed to me to be the only logical solution," Rider said.
VTrans says the 88-year-old concrete bridge, which carries an average of 2,400 vehicles daily over Broad Brook, is too narrow and is structurally deficient.
Though any construction is several years away, a recent state analysis recommended replacing the bridge. VTrans also said the best construction method would be to shut the span for a maximum of a month during an estimated six-month project.
Engineers said the current bridge is not wide enough to accommodate a single travel lane during construction. And there is room enough only for a one-lane temporary bridge upstream from the work site -- an option that VTrans does not favor due to potential traffic issues and increased right-of-way work.
Also, the state has estimated that bridge closure is $378,000 cheaper than building a temporary span. And officials have said the temporary-bridge option adds a full year to the project.
None of which is much comfort to those who worry that bridge closure will isolate residents who live south of the span. Of particular concern is access to emergency services from Rescue Inc. and Guilford Volunteer Fire Department.
Guilford fire Chief Jared Bristol said 17 of his 36 active members live south of the bridge, "which means our station and our equipment is on the other side."
Emergency responders could use an official detour on Interstate 91; a shorter local bypass via the unpaved, narrow Broad Brook Road; or a possibly modified emergency ramp on I-91. But in all cases, travel times would be lengthened by the bridge closure.
At a Dec. 12 public meeting in Guilford, officials discussed the feasibility of placing some emergency-response equipment south of the bridge during the project. But Bristol argues that "the real issue is the personnel to run it."
While there has been "brainstorming" regarding potential solutions, Bristol on Monday said he remains concerned about the impact of even a short-term bridge closure on Route 5.
All three Guilford Selectboard members attended the Dec. 12 meeting and heard such concerns. But at a meeting Monday, Rider said she believes a combination of local planning and reliance on mutual aid from emergency responders in other towns could address public-safety concerns.
"When I look at four weeks of having to really strategize as opposed to 18 months of flaggers, single-lane traffic, huge disruptions -- I thought, to me, the four weeks seemed like the lesser of two evils," Rider said.
She and Selectboard Chairman Dick Clark voted to support the state’s four-week closure recommendation. Selectboard member Troy Revis voted no, noting "a lot of concerns" expressed at the recent public meeting.
"I’m sorry, but I just disagree with you," Revis told his fellow board members.
Town Administrator Katie Buckley said that, if the state ultimately decides to close the bridge, there could be a meeting of "anybody who has a stake in it" to determine how to work around the project.
"We need to work as a community to figure out ways that we can best solve these problems," Buckley said.
It apparently won’t be long before the project’s direction is clear.
"We expect to make a decision on how to proceed within five weeks of the meeting that was held (on Dec. 12)," VTrans engineer Chris Williams told the Reformer in an e-mail. "That decision will be included in a letter sent to the regional planning commission with a copy to the town officials."
At the public meeting in Guilford, Williams made repeated reference to state compensation that is available to towns affected by bridge projects. In response to questions about such compensation, Williams told the Reformer that there are "no strings attached" to that money.
"Our assumption is that it will be spent, as needed, on speed control, weight enforcement, dust control (and) roadway maintenance," Williams said.
The amount of state money available is based on the estimated impact of additional traffic on local roads during bridge closure.
"The compensation to the town for a local bypass is determined by the duration of the closure, classification of road(s) and the length of the road(s)," Williams wrote.
We only ‘designate’ one local bypass as it relates to compensation but realize other roads could see increased traffic as well," he added. "We provide this compensation to the town at the late stages of project development when we are ready to advertise the project for construction."
Neither construction nor compensation will be happening anytime soon in Guilford: Williams said that, given the time required for developing the bridge project, "the best date for planning purposes would be construction in 2018 at the earliest and more likely 2019."