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S.O.S. for Tunbridge Bridges: Selectboard Mulls Vehicle Restrictions

  • A driver in a small SUV crosses the Mill Bridge in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The Tunbridge select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- they can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    A driver in a small SUV crosses the Mill Bridge in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The Tunbridge select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- they can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Photographed on July 23, 2014, one of the Mill Bridge trusses was damaged by an earlier incident with an overheight truck in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The town's select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- trucks can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Photographed on July 23, 2014, one of the Mill Bridge trusses was damaged by an earlier incident with an overheight truck in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The town's select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- trucks can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A driver in a small SUV crosses the Mill Bridge in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The Tunbridge select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- they can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Photographed on July 23, 2014, one of the Mill Bridge trusses was damaged by an earlier incident with an overheight truck in Tunbridge, Vt., on July 23, 2014. The town's select board is considering banning all truck traffic from the town's five covered bridges -- trucks can damage the spans due to being either too tall or too heavy. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Tunbridge — Every once in a while, it happens. Somebody doesn’t pay attention to the height warning signs, or a group of workers don’t realize how tall their truck is, and they’ll try to drive through one of Tunbridge’s five covered bridges, and —

“Bang, bang, bang, bang,” said Selectboard member Erin Gooch, recalling the sound a tow truck’s crane made as the vehicle drove through the Mill Bridge years ago, hitting “every single horizontal support as it went through.”

“It didn’t even stop,” she said.

More recently, recalled Selectboard member Gary Mullen, a person driving a U-Haul got the truck stuck in Mill Bridge “and couldn’t get out, and just floored it,” taking pieces of the bridge with him. And a few months ago, said Town Moderator Euclid Farnham, a man tried to drive through the bridge in a camper.

When the vehicle went in, Farnham said, there were air conditioners attached on top.

“But he didn’t come out with them on,” he said, chuckling.

As the town grapples with repairs to two of its covered bridges — most of which are probably the result of normal wear and tear — the Selectboard is in the early stages of brainstorming ways to better protect some of its most coveted historical treasures, which, every so often, find themselves slammed into by oversized vehicles.

Gooch, who has lived next to Mill Bridge for eight years, said that she or her husband has been home for at least five collisions, and there may well have been more than that.

Once, when a moving truck hit the bridge, “it was like a gun shot,” she said.

“It shook the house,” she said. “It is frustrating, because there are height limit signs posted on each end of the bridge.”

Selectboard members said most of the ideas involve working with the existing weight limits posted at the bridges, which, had they been abided by perpetrators past, could have prevented many of the collisions into the bridges.

Built between 1845 and 1902, the five bridges’ posted weight limits range from three tons, roughly the weight of an empty Ford F-350, to eight tons, about the average weight of an African elephant, and their posted heights range from 9-foot-2 to 10-foot-8. (Mill Bridge was rebuilt in 2000 after it was wiped out by an ice jam the previous year.)

But with no local police force and few tools for enforcement, the board is trying to figure out how to highlight some of those height and weight limits in ways that drivers will notice and heed.

Early ideas, Gooch said, include posting “passenger vehicle only” or “no trailer” signs at the two bridges with the easiest and closest alternative routes: Mill Bridge, just off Route 110 in Tunbridge Center, where the alternative route sits a stone’s throw away, and Cilley Bridge, located a few miles south of Mill Bridge along Howe Lane, a horseshoe-shaped road whose two entrances sit less than a mile apart on Route 110.

The ideas are still being tossed around, Gooch said, and the board does not have a clear definition of a “passenger vehicle,” although she said she personally views it as “everything from an SUV through a sedan.”

“I tend to think of a pickup truck up through a dual-wheeled vehicle as being not a passenger vehicle,” she said, noting that some of the larger modern pickup trucks, such as the F-350, would exceed three tons when carrying loads.

Gooch acknowledged posting signs whose intent is to prohibit pickup trucks in a rural town like Tunbridge would be difficult, “which is absolutely why we’re very much in the preliminary phases of this conversation.”

“It’s not a plan,” she said. “We’re not ordering signs.”

Other ideas, said Mullen, include posting “truck route” signs with arrows leading around the five covered bridges, “just to make people more aware” that an easy alternative is often around the corner.

In the case of Mill Bridge, which sits on Spring Road just off a steep drop from Route 110, he said the board has discussed installing signs closer to Route 110 so that out-of-towners know there is a covered bridge ahead before they turn off the main road.

Although her board colleague, Ingrid Van Steamburg, said the discussion about protecting the bridges has come up every now and again during Van Steamburg’s six-year tenure, Gooch said the repairs to Mill Bridge, off Route 110 in Tunbridge Center, and Flint Bridge, a few miles north on Bicknell Road, could provide a catalyst to kick the conversation into high-gear.

“Perhaps (this is) a good opportunity to enter into some dialogue about what it costs to maintain and repair the bridges, and how being a little bit more intentional in our signage might help in the long run,” Gooch said.

The town recently received bids for repair work to both Mill and Flint bridges ranging in total from $10,000 to $70,000. The repairs were deemed necessary by state inspectors at regularly scheduled inspections, the Selectboard members said.

“We do have some cracked supports in the Mill Bridge, and I don’t think you could claim that they were directly related to bridge accidents, but we have had so many (accidents) on the Mill Bridge” that the accidents could have contributed to the overall wear and tear, Gooch said.

Mullen said that the bidders offered plans that would range from one-day closings to multi-week closings. The board has not chosen a contractor yet.

Tunbridge is not the only town dealing with drivers colliding into its covered bridges.

In nearby Thetford, a hit-and-run driver, suspected to be driving a box truck, got away with causing significant damage to the Union Village Bridge in September 2011, just as the town was dealing with Tropical Storm Irene recovery.

Thetford Selectboard member Donn Downey said the town’s two covered bridges, including Sayres Bridge on Tucker Hill Road, have experienced several collisions in recent years, but that was one of the biggest.

The town explored installing height barriers in front of the bridges, such as hanging chains or metal, similar to those found at parking garages or drive-thru windows at fast food restaurants — which is an idea that has also been tossed around in Tunbridge. But Downey said Thetford officials found there to be too much red tape at the state level.

Thetford also thought about going high-tech with sensor lasers which, if driven through, would light up a warning sign, but the board decided it would probably cost too much. The town ultimately went in the other direction — at least for a while — by hanging colorful material in the top corners of the bridge openings, “just to draw people’s attention upwards,” Downey said.

In Tunbridge’s case, Mullen said that although preventing damage to the bridges would be ideal and paying to repair them can be “a pain in the backside,” he thinks it’s an important thing to do.

“I do consider the bridges to be a value to the town,” he said. “I think we need to keep spending money to take care of the darned things.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

Clarification

Mill Bridge in Tunbridge was originally built in the 19th century and rebuilt in 2000 after it was wiped out by an ice jam the previous year. An earlier version of this story omitted that point.