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Jim Kenyon: After letting it crumble, Hartford closing off the road less traveled

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/31/2021 9:49:36 PM
Modified: 7/31/2021 9:49:37 PM

Gates Street Hill is a short but steep and sweeping stretch of asphalt road that starts near St. Anthony’s Church in downtown White River Junction before peaking in the Fairview Terrace residential neighborhood, which was established in the late 1800s.

But like one-way traffic put in place due to the road’s disrepair, it’s only gone downhill.

For nearly a decade, Hartford officials have failed to heed an engineering consultant’s warning that the aging roadway — particularly a concrete retaining wall — is in need of major reconstruction.

“The cost of neglect has come due,” said David Briggs, speaking at Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting.

Briggs, owner of the downtown Hotel Coolidge, lives in one of the “terrace” neighborhoods above Gates Street Hill, which he takes regularly for work.

But Briggs — and most everyone else who lives on the terraces — must take a more circuitous route home from downtown. The section of Gates Street from Maplewood Terrace to Fairview Terrace has been limited to one-way traffic since 2018. (It was closed entirely for a while in 2017.)

On Tuesday, the Selectboard voted, 4-1, to “temporarily” close the road again to all traffic while it figures out, for starters, what to do about a crumbling retaining wall that theoretically keeps Gates Street Hill from eroding away.

“We’ve been hearing this for 10 years now,” resident Nancy Howe said. “What is temporary? What are the options?”

In choosing to have the road go from one-way to no-way, the board followed the recommendation of Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis who was concerned about numerous “safety hazards,” including the rickety metal railing above the retaining wall.

Public Works Director Hannah Tyler, who also supports the closing, told me that she expects the road will remain open to one-way traffic for a few more weeks while her crew puts up signs and erects blockades. The town plans to keep Gates Street Hill, which lost its sidewalk to disrepair about 50 years ago, open to foot traffic, Yarlott-Davis told me.

Last year, Hartford officials set aside $30,000 to improve the walkable portion of the street in hopes of alleviating what Yarlott-Davis described to the board as “trip and fall risks.” Smoothing out the pavement and filling cracks is slated to be completed before winter.

Unless you’re among the few hundred Hartford residents (a guesstimate) who use Gates Street Hill to reach downtown shops, restaurants and offices, it’s fair to ask why a street closing is worth writing about.

Making sure a town’s streets are maintained in such a way that they are safe to drive and walk is a basic function of local government. If town officials can’t do that much, how can they be trusted to oversee fair and impartial policing? Or enforce building codes and fire safety regulations?

A 2013 engineering firm’s analysis estimated that repairs could cost as much as $3.4 million. But the town kicked the proverbial can down the road. Now board members and residents are hearing the price tag could reach $6 million.

But no one can give a dollar amount with any certainty, which is part of the problem.

In 2020, the town’s annual highway budget included $200,000 for a planning and design study. At the urging of Patrick McQueen, who was serving as interim town manager, the Selectboard voted unanimously last October to put off the work and redirect the money to a bridge project in another part of town.

After word spread in recent weeks that the board was planning to close the street to all traffic, a dozen residents showed up at Tuesday’s meeting. Although they had reason to be upset, residents spoke calmly while getting their points across.

For residents who have dutifully paid their property taxes over the years, “it’s time for our town to give some of it back to us” by fixing the street, said Karen Richardson, who has lived on Hillcrest Terrace since 1979.

While acknowledging that “nobody complains about their property taxes being too low,” Russ North, another Hillcrest Terrace resident, said that he and his neighbors probably haven’t spoken up enough in the past. “We’re not going to let that happen anymore,” he added.

The current cast of town officials doesn’t deserve all the blame.

Yarlott-Davis only came to town in February. Since Hunter Rieseberg departed in 2015, the job of managing Hartford’s daily operations has changed hands five times.

The seven-member Selectboard has also been plagued by turnover as well. Several people have left before their terms expired, leaving vacancies. (Voters will cast ballots in a special election on Aug. 10 to fill the two current openings.)

Todd Campbell, who has lived around Fairview Terrace for nine years, reminded board members that although the street’s structural problems predate their watch, the responsibility to act is now theirs.

“I don’t want to come back here two years from now and we have all new faces (on the board) who say we need to do more studies,” Campbell said. “Time is of the essence.”

Dennis Brown, the sole board member to oppose the closing, told the audience that he expects the town will have to borrow a significant amount, which would require voters’ approval, to pay for the reconstruction.

Other board members were noncommittal about the street’s future, or whether it has any at all. “Some decisions are going to be painful,” Joe Major said.

“Nothing is off the table,” Board Chairman Dan Fraser added. “We need to get some prices.”

The board and residents were interested in hearing how long another engineering study will take. “We’re going to need money” to pay for it, Yarlott-Davis said.

“We’ll find it,” Major assured residents.

In the meantime, the cracks in Gates Street Hill’s crumbling retaining wall aren’t getting any smaller.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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