The rehabilitation project, which will be performed by New England Infrastructure Inc., of Hudson, Mass., will divert an estimated 2,200 cars a day during construction. (Image courtesy of New Hampshire Department of Transportation website)
Upper Connecticut River Valley residents are facing an 18-month closure of the bridge that connects East Thetford, Vt., with Lyme, N.H., and many of them attending a Nov. 28 meeting hosted by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) to address the project expressed their unhappiness about it.
New Hampshire already has the $11 million project, funded mostly with federal dollars, under contract with a Massachusetts-based construction company, reported the Valley News, a daily news source based in Lebanon, N.H.
Residents from both states packed into the auditorium at Thetford Academy in Thetford Center, Vt., to hear NHDOT officials walk through their decision-making process, as well as the timeframe for construction and traffic control plans at the crossing site.
The 85-year-old Lyme-East Thetford Bridge over the Connecticut River is expected to close in either April or May 2023 for refurbishment until the scheduled completion date in late October 2024.
The truss span, constructed in 1937 in what is still a rural part of both states, has the second highest priority in a lineup of almost 100 on New Hampshire's "red list," which catalogs the state's bridges most in need of repair.
The rehabilitation project, which will be performed by New England Infrastructure Inc., of Hudson, Mass., will divert an estimated 2,200 cars a day during construction. Thetford Academy expects to be among the hardest-hit communities by the detours.
"Having to detour to Orford or Hanover will, at a minimum, add up to an hour to our students' travel time, reducing their ability to meet their educational needs on campus," Thetford Academy Board President Donna Steinberg wrote in a 2021 letter to Reczek.
Tara Pacht is an office manager at Long Wind Farm, a tomato farm that operates year-round in greenhouses, along with a tai chi business, and all but hugs the Thetford side of the bridge off U.S. Highway 5, west of the river. She told Valley News that the farm has been preparing for the bridge closing for years.
"We definitely agree collectively at Long Wind Farm that the bridge needs to be replaced," Pacht said.
The closing will affect their business, she added, but that is something she and her husband, Jesse, have expected since attending the first public meeting about the project hosted by NHDOT in 2014.
"We went to those meetings, and we see the updates when they come through. It's not a surprise for us," Pacht explained. "It will impact the tai chi business and our retail stand, but we're hopeful that people will continue to still find us."
Many Residents Had Issues With NHDOT's Plan
According to Valley News, an ad-hoc group has formed, and a letter is circulating between the two communities of East Thetford and Lyme calling for a halt to the bridge closure.
"There's been a lot of information circulated about this project that's not necessarily factual," Jennifer Reczek, the NHDOT's project manager, said at the meeting. "I look at [this meeting] as more of an educational opportunity. The project is in construction, [and] the contract has been awarded."
While the project is already under contract, attendees at the Nov. 28 meeting came equipped with apprehensions, criticisms, and suggestions for how they thought the bridge rehab could be done better.
The NHDOT's Reczek said she has been talking with town officials about the possibilities of adding some business signage "to help get the word out," but "there's not an ability to compensate [impacted businesses] directly."
Due to financial constraints, as well as limitations put on the project by environmental and historical resources in the vicinity of the project — the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020 — she noted that erecting a temporary bridge has been ruled out.
The bridge closing "is in keeping with our typical means of addressing traffic control on these Connecticut River crossings," Reczek said. "Our plan is to close the bridge, get this rehab work done as quickly as we can, and get the bridge reopened."
Others at the meeting were concerned about how the traffic diversion might add to already high-density commuter areas like Hanover, N.H., which has the nearest river crossing to the south and would add an almost 18-mi., round-trip detour.
"Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot we can do, and the [NHDOT] just said, ‘We're doing it,'" explained Peter Kulbacki, Hanover's director of public works, in speaking to the Valley News. "Right now, we have to look at the morning commute — that's about the time it will be the worst. But I don't know that NHDOT ever really looked at that."
New Hampshire transportation officials did not reach out to Hanover about the project, he said.
Beyond concerns about the impact on businesses, as well as school and work schedules, some people at the public meeting were upset that the 471-ft.-long steel span was merely being refurbished, not renovated with new features, according to the Valley News.
"I'm really disappointed that in the vast bureaucratic approach to what bridge we would get, that it was all environmental and historical concerns [and] that the needs of the community were never addressed," said Thetford Selectboard member Li Shen.
"You're giving us a bridge that's an antique from the past. We need bicycle and pedestrian access as we try to stop climate change. You seem to be telling us the door is shut, it's all decided, you can't go back on this. But is there any way we can put a halt on this and reevaluate?"
Delaying Project Would Harm Funding
Reczek acknowledged that "the strong need" for some other connection between the two states in that area of the valley is clear, and that NHDOT will work with regional planning commissions on the issue going forward.
She closed the meeting by addressing calls that the project be punted down the road, emphasizing that the federal money that makes up the bulk of the budget must be spent by a certain date or risk losing it.
"We have spent millions of dollars that would need to be paid back to [the Federal Highway Administration]," Reczek explained. "So, what happens if we don't do this project? The best case would be construction in 2033, and there's a likely risk that this bridge could be closed for years before we'd be able to find the funding to do something different."
Backing out of a contract with "no cause" would be "unprecedented," Reczek noted, adding it would almost guarantee that the bridge stays closed for longer than currently planned.
"I know this isn't the answer that people are going to want to hear, but we have to make difficult decisions with the transportation funding we have," she said.
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