'Pie in the sky' vision for island, bridges


BRATTLEBORO — While the new bridge connecting Hinsdale, N.H., to downtown Brattleboro won't be complete until fall 2023, discussions are underway as to what to do with the two existing bridges and the island between them.

On Tuesday, the Existing Bridges Committee, which is a subcommittee of the Hinsdale-to-Brattleboro Project Advisory Committee, met at the Brattleboro Municipal Building to begin deciding how the bridges and the island might be used once traffic is diverted to the new bridge.

The replacement bridge will cross the Connecticut River at the traffic signal for George's Field on the New Hampshire side and will land on the Vermont side, on Route 142, just south of the parking lot for 28 Vernon St., which was formerly known as the Marlboro College Graduate Center.

When asked why the old bridges shouldn't just be removed, J.B. Mack, principal planner for the Southwest Region Planning Commission, said that as part of the environmental review for the replacement bridge, the Anna Hunt Marsh and the Charles Dana bridges were characterized as part of the historical heritage of the region.

"The state historical agencies also thought it made sense to keep the bridges," he said. "Some people disagree with that assessment, but that's a major milestone in getting federal funding for the project."

While there is debate on whether the bridges should stay or go, said Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, the scope of the the Existing Bridges Committee "assumes the bridges will stay and people will have access to the island."

Moreland noted that the overall goals for the main project were established in 2013.

They included: Maintaining a transportation corridor between the two towns; fixing the safety, structural and functional deficiencies of the existing corridor; maintaining area social and economic relationships; preserving the integrity of area resources; and conserving fiscal resources.

Notably, "The Brattleboro/Hinsdale transportation corridor has numerous natural and cultural resources that contribute to the social, economic, environmental, and aesthetic qualities of the area," states "Purpose and Needs" statement for the project.

"To the extent possible," said Moreland, "we should consider minimizing the impact on the local taxpayers. There's going to be considerable money spent here, but it's important to consider ways in which to have it not hit the tax base in Brattleboro or Hinsdale."

The cost for the entire project is $50 million, with $26 million coming from New Hampshire, $4 million from Vermont and $20 million from either a federal grant or low-interest loans.

Robert Landry, the administrator for the Bridge Design Division of the N.H. Department of Transportation, said rehabilitating the existing bridges for pedestrian use is estimated to cost $8 million, which is included in the $50 million price tag.

How much it will cost to maintain the bridges and how long they will last after the new bridge is open is being studied and those numbers should be available soon, said Landry.

Who will be responsible for the upkeep of the bridges and any improvements to the island, which might include signage, lighting and some sort of low-impact event space, has yet to be determined. Currently, the state of New Hampshire owns the bridges and the island, and Hinsdale has shown little interest in assuming ownership, and the accompanying fiscal responsibility. The town of Brattleboro has also indicated it doesn't want to own the bridges or the island.

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"There is an ongoing discussion, not at this committee's level, working toward resolving who ultimately will be the owners," said Moreland, adding how much it will cost to maintain the bridges and the island will help to inform that decision.

Nonetheless, said Moreland, it's important to define a vision for the space when the bridges are closed in 2023.

"What do we aspire to?" asked Mack. "The possibilities are wide open."

The committee spent some time discussing the recreational opportunities afforded by the bridges and the island, including access to hiking and biking trails on both sides of the Connecticut River and access to the river itself, such as for swimmers and kayakers and canoeists.

Moreland noted that whatever happens with the existing bridges, the community needs to know that the bridges and the island will be "clean and safe."

Currently, the island is being used as a camping spot for the homeless and for drug use. The Hinsdale Police Department has conducted sweeps on the island to clear the campers out, but they usually return.

"Actually making it a more active destination as opposed to people moving through the site like now, would be better for keeping it clean and safe," noted Kathy Urffer, a river steward with the Connecticut River Conservancy. "A little conscious development might go a long way, such as interpretive signs, maybe a deck or a vista where people could sit and paint or look at the river."

The committee agreed the area could be used for cultural events such as small concerts or museum exhibits, but expressed concerns about crowds that might be attracted to the island and the lack of bathrooms.

"The number of people who can be on that island is limited," said Moreland.

"Pie in the sky," said Marion Major, a planner with the Windham Regional Commission, "we'd love to have events staged here with an extremely low-maintenance event space."

"It's important to keep it pretty broad," agreed Mack. "The next step is to get the public involved."

The committee discussed ways to get people involved and how best to solicit ideas from the public. They agreed that public meetings were a good starting point, but also suggested setting up information booths at local farmers markets and events.

The planning commissions also hope to set up an online commenting tool for people who can't make the meetings or don't necessarily like to speak in public.

Mack said if people want to submit ideas for the existing bridges or the island right now, or have any ideas on how to reach the committee can reach out to the public, they should email him at jbmack@swrpc.org.


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