New laws to protect New Hampshire’s covered bridges

A biker rides over the Edgell Covered Bridge while participating in the Prouty Ultimate in Lyme, N.H., on Friday, July 14, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A biker rides over the Edgell Covered Bridge while participating in the Prouty Ultimate in Lyme, N.H., on Friday, July 14, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-10-2024 7:46 PM

Modified: 07-11-2024 10:24 AM


CORNISH — Upper Valley lawmakers and police officers hope two new laws will help protect New Hampshire’s covered bridges from oversized vehicles.

HB 1457-FN will increase the fines for motorists who damage covered bridges to $1,000 for a first offense; HB 1217 will allow municipalities and the state to install cameras near covered bridges “to identify the cause of damage to historic covered bridges,” to hold motorists who harm them accountable.

Both laws passed the Legislature with little debate and were signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu July 3. The video law will go into effect on Sept. 1, while the fine increases will begin on Jan. 1. If cameras are installed at a covered bridge, there must be signs up to let motorists know they are being recorded.

“This is really preventative, not punitive,” state Rep. Margaret Drye, who introduced the bill regarding fines and was a cosponsor of the camera bill, said in a phone interview. “The idea isn’t that we make money for writing tickets. The idea is we stop people from hitting the covered bridges.”

Drye is a Republican who represents Plainfield, Cornish, Newport, Unity and Charlestown. Her district includes the historic Cornish/Windsor Covered Bridge, which has been damaged repeatedly over the years by oversized vehicles.

Both new laws were welcomed by Lyme Police Chief Shaun J. O’Keefe and Cornish Police Chief Doug Hackett.

In Lyme, construction on the Edgell Covered Bridge on River Road is set to begin this month, in part to repair damage sustained from vehicles that are too tall and too wide. The covered bridge sits at the bottom of a hill on windy road.

“Trailers often are the problem,” O’Keefe said in a phone interview. “They’re too wide and once the vehicle is in the bridge, the trailer is at this weird angle and they start to drag it through and the damage is caused.”

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While O’Keefe said it is too soon to say if the town will install cameras, it is something he plans to discuss with the Selectboard.

“People’s behaviors are different when they know they’re being watched,” he said. “We’re going to spend hundreds on thousands of dollars to fix this bridge, and the last thing we want is someone to come back through and damage it.”

Since the Cornish/Windsor bridge is owned by the state, Hackett plans on asking the New Hampshire Department of Transportation about installing cameras to monitor it.

In the meantime, he is excited to be able to write issue larger fines to people who damage covered bridges — particularly the Cornish/Windsor bridge, which is struck multiple times a year by oversized vehicles. There are also three other covered bridges in Cornish that have been damaged multiple times over the years.

Currently, he can only write a $62 ticket for “disobeying a traffic control device” — a penalty that he said is not enough to dissuade drivers from attempting to use a bridge to reduce travel time.

The new fine also is in line with Vermont’s penalties for damaging covered bridges, which also start at $1,000.

“I think the $1,000 is a better deterrent,” Hackett said in a phone interview. “I’m excited to finally have a tool in my tool belt to discourage people to cross the bridge with an overweight or over-height vehicle.”

HB 1457-FN also will allow police to issue a $500 ticket to any motorist driving a vehicle that “exceeds any weight, height, or other dimensional limit,” even if they do not cause damage to a bridge. “If the offense substantially impedes the flow of traffic, the fine shall be up to $2,000,” according to the law.

Even if an overweight vehicle doesn’t visibly damage a covered bridge, “repeated incidents will cause excessive stress on the structural components resulting in long-term damage which will likely be costly to repair,” said Bill Caswell, president of the nonprofit National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges.

The nonprofit supported both new laws. Caswell doesn’t expect that the higher fines will completely fix the problem, but he hopes they will help drivers understand that “we care about our state’s historic structures and wish to protect them from damage,” he said in an email.

There are 25 states — including New Hampshire and Vermont — that have covered bridges that are open to vehicles, Caswell said.

“The only true solution is to find a way to have drivers pay attention to and respect the posted clearance and weight limit signs,” he wrote. “We are hoping that allowing towns to install video surveillance and increasing fines will help.”

N.H. state Rep. Bill Palmer, a Democrat who represents Cornish and Plainfield, decided to support HB 1457-F after talking to Hackett and Drye about it.

While he is pleased there will be more protection for the state’s covered bridges, he cautioned, “it only works if people know about it. I’m hoping at least locally we will see some notices to make people more aware of it.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.