State, community members differ on plans for bridge spanning river between Charlestown and Springfield, Vt.

The Cheshire Bridge spans the Connecticut River, connecting Springfield, Vt., and Charlestown, N.H., on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation plans to close the bridge for over eight months to conduct extensive repairs, starting in April 2025. (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.

The Cheshire Bridge spans the Connecticut River, connecting Springfield, Vt., and Charlestown, N.H., on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation plans to close the bridge for over eight months to conduct extensive repairs, starting in April 2025. (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. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 05-16-2024 4:58 PM

CHARLESTOWN — State officials and area residents remain at odds over plans to fix the nearly 100-year-old Cheshire Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River between Charlestown and Springfield, Vt.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation had planned to advertise the project in the fall and begin work next spring that would require closing the bridge for 34 weeks.

That plan has been delayed until at least 2026, but in the meantime, business owners and others remain concerned about the impact of the project.

On Wednesday, with about 40 people in attendance inside the old town hall, David Scott, in-house design chief with DOT, presented two options that would close the bridge for eight weeks for overhead painting and then restrict the bridge to one-lane traffic for 34 weeks.

The rehabilitation would take place over two construction seasons.

While eight weeks of complete closure was an improvement over 34 weeks, those who spoke at the meeting said it was still too long.

“It is better, but it does not sound all that great,” said resident Phil Turner.

Under one option presented by Scott, large trucks could not fit in the single lane and would need to detour to other crossings.

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The second alternative would widen one lane from 8 feet to 12 to allow for truck traffic. Increasing the one-lane width would mean equipment for painting the bridge would be on a barge in the river instead of on the bridge deck.

Using a barge would make the project more complex and increase the environmental impact on wetlands and endangered species, Scott said. Because the river is shallow, a bulkhead would have to be constructed on the edge of the river to load the barge with equipment.

Without the longer full closure, the original price to repair the bridge of $6.3 million would increase to $9 million with the barge, Scott said in his presentation.

A number of residents at the meeting said a new bridge would be a better long-term solution than repairing and repainting the existing structure.

The 500-foot-long bridge is 21-feet wide and was constructed in 1930. The bridge was painted in 1992, which required it to be closed to traffic for about four weeks, and some repairs were completed in 2015.

Turner and others contend the bridge is too narrow for today’s vehicles and because of its age, will require more costly maintenance in the years ahead. Many suggested it should be used for pedestrian and bike traffic once a new bridge is constructed.

Charlestown business owners Matt Blanc of Blanc and Bailey Construction and Albert St. Pierre of St. Pierre Sand and Gravel argued for a new bridge.

St. Pierre said the $20 million the state has budgeted for permanent repairs to a section of Route 12 in South Charlestown that was damaged in heavy rains in the summer of 2021 could be better spent on a new bridge.

“Give it to us for a new bridge, please,” St. Pierre said.

Resident Vincent Jordan said a bridge closure would burden many people with longer, more expensive commutes. The closest crossings on the Connecticut River are 10 miles north between Claremont to Ascutney, and 9 miles south between Walpole, N.H., with Bellows Falls, Vt.

Jordan pointed to the crossing at Brattleboro, Vt., where a second bridge was constructed in 2003 right next to the a 1930s-era bridge, which today is used by pedestrians and bicyclists.

“Why can’t you do it here?” Jordan asked Scott. “In 10 years, you will be back here (to make repairs). Do the right thing. Build a new bridge.”

Scott said if approved, a new bridge would be moved to the end of the DOT’s next 10-year plan and would not be constructed for at least a decade.

Carol Clark, who owns the Sumner House, a Charlestown restaurant, said closing the bridge for eight weeks in the summer would have a dramatic negative effect on her business.

“It’s a big deal for a small business,” Clark said.

Charlestown Selectboard member Shelly Andrus suggested that if the bridge has to be closed completely, it should be done only at night with one lane open during the day.

“It is not ideal but if we are trying to find a middle ground, that might be it,” Andrus said.

At the very least, residents said a temporary bridge should be put in place before repairs to avoid a complete closure and suggested the DOT work with the Army Corp of Engineers.

A temporary bridge would add years to the project and another $5 to $6 million in costs, raising the entire project to about $14 million, Scott said.

State Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, said he would begin work in the Legislature to try to secure the money for a temporary structure but it was too early to say whether he could be successful.

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, DOT Commissioner William Cass assured everyone that his department will continue to look for the best path forward, even if that takes another two or three years.

“We want to make sure whatever project comes out of this it is not rushed,” Cass said. “If we have to take more time to develop a consensus, we will do that.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.