Bridge Has Neighbors Cross
Revamped Wilder Span Is Steeper and More Narrow
Workers from F.R. Lafayette Inc. and Renaud Brothers Inc. take a break from installing a decorative guardrail on the new bridge in Wilder yesterday to watch a northbound passing freight train. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Michael Campell of F.R. Lafayette Inc, waits for a decorative guardrail to be lowered onto the outside of the Gillette Street bridge. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Wilder — A historic truss bridge that used to be wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic is now so steep and narrow that two drivers traveling in opposite directions won’t be able to see each other until they’ve neared the top.
The Gillette Street bridge — part of a two-bridge preservation project that began in spring 2011 and cost the state about $2.7 million — will be ready for vehicle use next week, said Kristin Higgins, project manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, allowing community members to smoothly pass over the railroad tracks that separate Route 5 from the Kilowatt North and South Parks.
But families in the surrounding neighborhoods are concerned with the safety of the new design.
“Because the bridge rises so high up, drivers who are approaching from different sides won’t see each other,” Higgins explained. “Then, one of them has to reverse for the other to proceed.”
The 72-foot bridge already offered a poor line of sight for drivers before the state began implementing a rehabilitation plan, Higgins said, but during construction, the builders “had to raise the height of the bridge to accommodate minimum railroad height requirements,” which inevitably increased the steepness of the hill and worsened the sight condition for drivers.
Higgins said that since the new additions — which also include guard rails for safety measures — cut away at the original 13.4-foot width, she proposed making the Gillette Street bridge one-way.
Passengers could resort to the Passumpsic Avenue bridge about a block down, and it would help clear congestion, she said, but town members weren’t in favor of the suggestion.
Although they are getting their requests fulfilled with a new 5-foot sidewalk for children to walk along and stop signs and bars near the base of each side of the bridge, most town members are worried about the safety ramifications.
These changes restrict their movement, and only further impede their ability to squeeze two-way traffic onto the narrow road, they contend.
“Just look at those guard rails,” said Harry Kendrick, a Wilder resident. He pointed at the construction workers renovating a portion of the bridge. “If those rails were farther over, you’d have more room.”
Yesterday afternoon, Kendrick and his wife, Jean, sat on the corner of Gillette and Passumpsic and waited for their granddaughter’s bus to arrive.
Lots of kids live in this area, they said. Around 2:50 p.m. every day, Harry said, a Hartford Elementary School bus unloads a group of loud, squealing children at the intersection of Gillette Street and Passumpsic Avenue.
“With their bus stop right by the base of the bridge, we’re concerned,” Jean said.
“And an even bigger concern,” Harry chimed in, “is that two cars would have to back up once they got to the top of the bridge and finally saw each other, which is not safe.”
Harry, who’s lived on Passumpsic Avenue for 34 years, said that he and other citizens expected the changes, but they were assured by the builders and government officials who helped coordinate the bridge’s rehabilitation that “a car would have enough space to pull over to side, should they need to.”
“They say it’s built to the specifications they had,” he said, “but it’s not built like they said it would be.”
Judy McCrory, another resident, said she was also taken aback by the bridge changes.
“I (recently) walked to the top of the bridge once,” McCrory said, “and I was surprised at how steep it now felt. They definitely raised it, and it’s more narrow than I thought it would be.”
As a mother of four, McCrory said the children’s safety is the paramount concern.
“It’s a busy intersection,” she said, “and it’s a tricky time of day: The children are just getting home, they’re ready for a snack, and they’re tired.”
With more cars possibly reversing downhill to avoid colliding on the bridge, “we’re going to have to be more careful,” McCrory said.
Higgins, who said she’s heard from a few families who oppose the changes, thinks part of the issue lies in prior misconceptions about how the bridge would look.
“They’ve had the chance to see (the design plans) on paper,” Higgins said, “but when you look at the paper, you don’t really see anything. In real life, it looks very different.”
Once the bridge opens next week, Higgins said, the town can decide if the new bridge design is feasible.
“The builders are putting down temporary tape” to differentiate the two lanes, she said, and if people are unhappy with the flow of traffic, they can re-evaluate it and later decide to peel it off and start anew on the center line.
Back on the corner of Gillette and Passumpsic, James Goedkoop stood under a shady tree and watched the construction workers chat in the beating sun.
Goedkoop has lived on Passumpsic Avenue for 25 years, he said. And during that time, he’s seen a lot of people speed down the bridge.
Once, Goedkoop said, someone drove down the bridge’s slope so fast, they looked “airborne.”
“At the bottom of the bridge, there was a small child riding a bicycle who almost got nailed,” he recalled. “I’m starting to wonder if this design is going to be such a bad thing. My perspective is, if it’s somewhat inconvenient but slows people down, it’s a good thing. But if it’s massively inconvenient, that’s a different story.”