VT’s Route 121 Gets a Facelift and Loses a Few Undesirable Curves

Fri June 20, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Kip Fry

There is little wonder why there is a construction project on Route 121 in southeastern Vermont. The mile-long (1.6 km) stretch of highway between Cambridgeport and Grafton has been for many years a rotten road.

That will soon change now that construction crews from Morrill Construction in North Haverhill, NH, and other subcontractors are totally reconstructing that portion of road. The highway which has always been dangerously curvy, also has become badly rutted over the years.

“It was a severely rutted road. It was the worst I had ever seen,” commented Tom Chase, regional technician of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans). He explained that when he drove his pickup truck down the road, some of the curves were so tight that he simply could not make the turn and stay in the same lane. “A pickup can’t make it,” he added.

As a result the old highway is being torn up. In its place, 12 in. (30.5 cm) of sand, 18 in. (45.7 cm) of crushed stone, a new base of pavement measuring 5.7 in. (14.6 cm) and a top coat is being put into the old roadbed, according to Danny Breer, a resident engineer of VTrans.

One of the primary culprits was the lack of good drainage, Breer said. Water has collected on top of the road much like miniature ponds, eventually causing potholes.

The road is so rough in places that it has been difficult to plow it clear of snow during the winter. But by building a new sub-base for the road and adding new culverts, the problem should be avoided in the future.

The tight turns also will be changed but not so much that it will alter the rural character of the road. Local residents told the project engineers that they would rather have some curves in the road rather than have it be totally straight. At the same time, shoulders and box beam guardrails are being added for safety’s sake because so many bicyclists use the road. Because there is little change planned for the route of the road, not much dirt actually needs to be moved, according to Bruce Temple, general manager of Morrill Construction.

A new pre-cast arch bridge along the route is being installed and new retaining walls added, both of which are being handled by Miller Construction of Windsor, VT.

Traffic lights have been installed at either end of the bridge to ensure that traffic moves only one way at a time.

The retaining wall, complete with stone facade, is designed to keep eroding soil from spilling onto the road. The wall cuts into a bank above the highway, but it has been designed to be less intrusive than those found on interstate highways, Temple said. Landscaping also will take place along the side of the road. The trees being planted there will help reduce erosion. Lane Construction of Walpole, NH, is handling the paving duties.

Officials have deemed it an important highway to keep in good shape primarily because it has been used for a long time as a shortcut between White River Junction and other communities in the lower central part of the state, such as Townshend. “For those people that know it, it’s a good shortcut,” Chase said.

Work on the job started on Aug. 1, 2002 and stopped for the winter months on Dec. 5. Approximately 27 percent of the job was completed by that time. Work will pick up again when the weather allows it in the spring of 2003. The highway is totally open to traffic during the winter.

The project, which carries a price tag of $2.87 million, is scheduled for completion on Dec. 14, 2003. Once that job is finished, though, an adjoining piece of Route 121 will be the subject of a similar project. That road, which leads into Cambridgeport, measures approximately 2 mi. (3.2 km) in length and currently is going through the right-of-way process. However, none of the contracts for that job has gone out to bid yet.

The road has been the subject of debate for several decades. As far back as the 1960s, residents have been arguing over whether it should be repaired.

Subsequently, nothing until now has been done. But now that work has started, people in the area are happy.

“People are usually on your back with projects like this,” said Breer. “But there have been no complaints about this. Everybody wants this. The property owners have been more than receptive.”