Nobody can accuse New Hampshire of moving too quickly when it comes to funding transportation infrastructure projects, and the proposed rehabilitation of the historic Vilas Bridge connecting Walpole and Bellows Falls is a case in point.
The bridge — a two-span open spandrel arch bridge built in 1931 — was closed in 2009 when it failed a safety inspection and was deemed unsafe for vehicle traffic. Since then, fixing it has shown up on the state’s 10-year transportation plan, though the project’s scheduled start has been bumped back from time to time. Construction has most recently been slated to begin in 2028 and be completed a year later, a full 20 years after its closure.
The good news for the project is that it remains on that schedule in the latest draft of the 10-year plan currently being discussed in statewide public hearings being held under the auspices of the Executive Council. There’s a huge caveat to meeting that schedule, however: The plan calls for the state to commit only about $10 million to the anticipated $17.7 million project cost, and the state has not identified a source for the remaining funds.
Though the Vilas Bridge is one of the 30 bridges connecting the Granite and Green Mountain states, it’s been clear in the now 12 years since the bridge was closed that Vermont has the greater interest in its repair. The bridge crosses the Connecticut River directly into downtown Bellows Falls, and over the years downtown merchants have complained of substantial fall-offs in business since its closure, at times by as much as 30 percent. There’s less motivation for its repair on the New Hampshire side. The Arch Bridge about a mile upstream and the Route 123 bridge to the south provide Walpole residents continued, if somewhat less convenient, access to Bellows Falls.
Although its interest in the Vilas Bridge repair is the more compelling, Vermont has resisted contributing significantly to the cost. Because the river is part of New Hampshire, Vermont is considered responsible for only about 7 percent of the bridge. The Green Mountain State has made offers to help, including one — somewhat of a Trojan Horse kind of proposal — to front the repair cost, provided New Hampshire repay it by funding all of Vermont’s portion of future repairs of the other Connecticut River bridges.
None of those proposals gained traction, and New Hampshire has shown no willingness to go much beyond halfsies with Vermont, which is roughly its allocation in the current 10-year plan draft. Given that there are many New Hampshire bridges red-listed for being in serious need of repair, and that there remains available, if less direct, cross-border access for New Hampshire residents, the state’s reluctance to commit more resources is understandable.
There has, however, cropped up an additional reason for the state to take a greater interest in addressing the project. At a hearing on the 10-year plan in Keene last week, all three members of the Walpole selectboard submitted statements expressing concern that the bridge’s continued deterioration might cause damage to the sewer line running below the bridge. The line extends from Walpole to the Bellows Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant, and its condition is important to Walpole, which needs the sewage-treatment access. The possibility of damage to the line also raises heightened environmental concerns for the Connecticut River — which, as noted, is part of New Hampshire — and for communities downstream.
The sewer-line concern adds greater urgency to addressing the Vilas Bridge’s condition. It seems fair that costs associated with the sewer line should be on New Hampshire’s dime, and perhaps, as the Walpole selectboard members noted, it could enable the state to tap into other funding resources for the bridge rehabilitation project. Apart from that, it remains the case that the bridge travels in both directions, and it appears Vermont will need to step up with meaningful funding if it wants cross-border traffic to empty directly into downtown Bellows Falls. Without it or any other source of additional funding, New Hampshire’s best option might be to rehabilitate the historic Vilas Bridge for pedestrian, bike or other recreational use while also addressing the sewer-line issue.