ROCKINGHAM, Vt. — Town officials say they are reaching out to their congressional delegation in a last-ditch effort to get New Hampshire to repair and reopen Vilas Bridge.
“We’ve pretty much exhausted every other avenue,” Gary Fox, Rockingham’s development director, said.
The Rockingham Board of Selectmen agreed at its Nov. 6 meeting to contact the town’s congressional delegation, hoping that outside pressure might help get the bridge repaired. That delegation includes U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy.
Built in 1930, the now-defunct bridge connects Walpole and Bellows Falls — a village of Rockingham — across the Connecticut River. The Vilas Bridge failed a safety inspection in March 2009 and has been closed to vehicles and pedestrians since.
New Hampshire owns 93 percent of the bridge, and Vermont owns the rest. The rehabilitation of Vilas Bridge, estimated at just under $6.9 million, is included in the N.H. Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan, slated for 2028.
In 2014 and 2016, however, a spokesman for the DOT said “financial constraints” meant the repairing the bridge would not be a priority. He instead pointed to nearby Arch Bridge as an alternative for travel between Walpole and Bellows Falls.
But Fox said that bridge doesn’t serve the same purpose.
“From our perspective, the Vilas Bridge impacts us in a big way,” he said.
Arch Bridge crosses a railroad line, he noted, and freight trains can delay the response of emergency vehicles between the communities. Vilas Bridge didn’t have that problem, he said.
Fox also pointed out that nearly 5,000 vehicles traveled over the Vilas Bridge each day, on average.
“It’s an economic issue. The merchants immediately saw a drop-off in business and tourism,” he said. “… And it’s a beautiful historic bridge in itself, the only one of its kind remaining in New Hampshire.”
More specifically, it’s an open spandrel concrete arch bridge, and it was included on the N.H. Preservation Alliance’s Seven to Save list in 2012.
While the bridge has appeared on multiple 10-year plans from the N.H. DOT and several state agencies on both sides of the river have lobbied for the bridge repair, the department has continually pushed the project off and cited funding limitations.
But it’s contractually obligated to maintain the bridge, Fox said.
In 1994, the state sought to replace its only other open spandrel concrete arch bridge, which was in Newport. To get that permission, the N.H. DOT signed an agreement with the state’s Historic Preservation Office, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
The agreement stipulated the N.H. DOT would commit to “the long-term maintenance of the Vilas Bridge,” according to the document.
“In 2002, the condition of the bridge started to be of concern,” Fox said.
When the repair needs became clear, he said Rockingham’s then-development director and planners with the Windham Regional Commission contacted the N.H. DOT and said the bridge was deteriorating. Fox said the department responded that it didn’t plan to repair the bridge.
A few years later, the Vermont legislature produced a joint resolution urging New Hampshire “to expedite the restoration.” Specifically, the resolution asked the N.H. DOT to conduct its engineering studies in 2005 and 2006 and to perform construction the following year.
Though that wasn’t heeded, Fox said communication between state agencies continued for a couple years.
“And then in 2009, New Hampshire DOT closed the bridge, saying it was unsafe, it was too deteriorated, which is what people had been saying all along was going to happen,” Fox said.
Efforts persisted as years passed. In 2014, the Vermont Agency of Transportation offered to pay for the entire rehabilitation project, despite being responsible for only a small percentage of the bridge. As part of the agreement, New Hampshire would have agreed to cover Vermont's portion of the bill on any future projects involving bridges connecting the two states until those payments equaled the cost of rehabilitating the Vilas Bridge. New Hampshire didn’t accept the offer.
That same year, members of the N.H. House of Representatives sponsored a bill to change the funding mechanism and split the Vilas Bridge repair costs in half with Vermont. The bill died in committee.
Now, Fox said the worry is the project will keep getting pushed to the back burner by the DOT.
“So the concern is it basically amounts to demolition by neglect,” he said. “Just, every time there’s enough pressure to fix it that they put it in the plan, they put it in the 10th year of a 10-year plan, which is where it is now.”
After expending so many options, Fox said turning to the congressional delegation seems to be the only path the town hasn’t taken.
He acknowledged that Vermont could hypothetically sue the Granite State over the bridge, but the most compelling piece of evidence is the agreement between the DOT and the U.S. agencies.
“(It) feels like that’s the only avenue we really have left to go is to see if the federal government will help enforce that,” Fox said.
This article has been updated to more clearly describe the 2014 offer the Vermont Agency of Transportation made to New Hampshire to repair the Vilas Bridge.