BELLOWS FALLS -- In an attempt to reopen the Vilas Bridge sooner rather than later, the Vermont Agency of Transportation is making an offer it hopes New Hampshire can't refuse.
Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh told the Reformer the state is willing to finance the bridge's rehabilitation on the condition that, in the future, New Hampshire helps pay for any repairs to all other bridges spanning the Connecticut River. New Hampshire would be expected to pay up to the amount it takes to fix the Vilas.
Walsh said VTrans Commissioner Brian Searles last month made the offer to Chris Clement, his counterpart at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, but has not yet received any response.
The NHDOT had no statement for the Reformer by 6 p.m. Wednesday.
VTrans Deputy Secretary Sue Minter said Searles and Clement have had conversations about the offer. She said the plan is a way for the two states to work together to solve a problem.
"For New Hampshire, this bridge is in the middle of a very difficult revenue problem they're having and (the Vilas) is not a high priority," she told the Reformer.
New Hampshire owns 93 percent of the bridge and Minter said Vermont has no interest in changing that, which she understands some proposed state legislation aims to do.
"We're just recognizing some fiscal realities in New Hampshire," she said, adding that it is also important to help Vermont's downtown areas.
Walsh said it is uplifting to hear about Vermont's offer.
"I was initially concerned about where the money is coming from, but they obviously must have it in order to make this offer," he said Wednesday.
The bridge's closure has frustrated area residents, who started a grassroots effort to reopen it by having New Hampshire honor a promise they feel was made to their community 20 years ago.
According to a 1993 letter from Charles O'Leary, the then-commissioner of the N.H. Department of Transportation, to Nancy C. Muller, then the director and state preservation officer for the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, the Vilas Bridge would be taken out of commission only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation). Muller also said efforts would be made to maintain it.
The 635-foot-long structure spans the Connecticut River and connects Bellows Falls with Walpole, N.H. It was closed following a semi-annual inspection that found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck, according to a statement released by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in March 2009.
The Vilas, built circa 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, and residents are furious that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time of the closure, a reported 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure on an average day and village residents say businesses have taken a hit because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been severed.
Walsh told the Reformer that Vermont's offer has the village's economic stability and public safety in mind.
"It could make (rehabilitation) happen sooner than 10 years," he said.
Last year, the bridge was added to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance's Seven to Save list, a collection of structure it vows to restore to their former glory. Walsh, a resident of Chesterfield, N.H., nominated the bridge because nominations could be submitted only by people living in New Hampshire and he wanted to ensure the Vilas would remain a priority in the Granite State. Walsh said the bridge would remain on the list despite Vermont's offer to finance rehabilitation.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.