Upper Valley legislators aim to strengthen penalties for bridge damage
|Published: 12-05-2023 4:30 AM
CORNISH — Around half a dozen times year, Cornish Police Chief Doug Hackett has to respond to a too familiar call: Someone has hit one of the town’s fabled covered bridges.
More often than not, the motorist is already long gone. On the off chance that they’ve stuck around — or have gotten stuck in a bridge — Hackett is limited in how he can respond.
“If we catch a vehicle halfway across the bridge that has to back out … literally the only thing I can do is give them a $62 ticket,” Hackett said, adding that the statute that drivers violate is “disobeying a traffic control device,” meaning failure to obey height restriction signs posted around covered bridges. A second offense increases the penalty to $124.
“Aside from the insurance covering the damage when the driver is actually caught, there is little-to-no repercussion for those who ignore it and take the risk every day of making it across,” Hackett said.
Covered bridges are beloved in New Hampshire by residents and tourists alike, Hackett said, noting that people gather at the Cornish/Windsor Covered Bridge and other spans throughout the Twin States to photograph them.
New Hampshire lawmakers have been paying attention: After the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge was damaged this spring, Hackett started speaking with state Rep. Margaret Drye, a Republican who represents Plainfield, Cornish, Newport, Unity and Charlestown.
The result: When the legislative session opens in January, Drye will propose a bill that will increase the fine Hackett can write to $1,000 for a first offense. Motorists can also be charged up to $2,000 for a first offense if a vehicle “substantially impedes the flow of traffic,” according to the proposed bill. A second offense calls for a $2,000 fine.
“The idea is to make it known that we take it seriously and to try to prevent it by making it a fine people want to avoid,” Drye said. “People should understand that those limits are set for a reason.”
Drivers who disobey weight, height and other dimensional limits on covered bridges but do not damage them could be fined $500 if the bill passes.
Drye’s bill has eight sponsors from both political parties.
“Almost all of them have a covered bridge in their area. People are jumping on board very fast,” Drye said. “I think every town who has a covered bridge has a horror story about it.”
A separate bill, proposed by state Rep. Barry Faulkner, a Swanzey, N.H., Democrat, would allow municipalities to install cameras around covered bridges so that law enforcement officials can find motorists who cause damage.
“My goal is really about being able to identify who is responsible and being able to go after the insurance company,” said Faulkner, who decided to pursue legislation after Swanzey Town Administrator Michael Branley reached out to him about damage done to the town’s covered bridges. “I don’t think it was one particular event, but a culmination of a lot of little things. It becomes a cost burden for the town.”
Both bills have bipartisan support.
“It’s long overdue,” said state Sen. Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, who signed on as a co-sponsor of Drye’s bill. “I don’t think that this unreasonable in terms of the fees that she’s seeking based on the damage that is happening.”
It’s damage that Lyme Police Chief Shaun J. O’Keefe knows all too well. He estimates that over the course of his 22 years in Lyme, the Edgell Covered Bridge on River Road has been hit at least a dozen times.
Lyme has a town ordinance that allows police officers to write tickets from $250 to $500 for those who disobey posted signs and damage covered bridges, but it hasn’t been enough to stop motorists. The Lyme Selectboard is working on a warrant article to put before voters in March 2024 to allocate funds to repair the bridge. While Lyme has a capital reserve fund for bridge repairs and is exploring other funding options to help pay for repairs, an estimate put the cost at $690,000, according to minutes from a September Selectboard meeting.
“There’s damage to the underneath of the bridge, just from years of oversized vehicles traveling through it,” O’Keefe said. “There is damage caused from impacts inside the bridge.”
Hackett, O’Keefe and lawmakers share a similar frustration: Motorists approaching covered bridges are repeatedly warned about height and weight restrictions, but decide to try to make it through anyway. In the case of the Cornish/Windsor bridge, the detour around it to get to Vermont is quite long: Drivers either have to go to Ascutney or West Lebanon. If they make it across without getting stuck or damaging the bridge, a $62 ticket doesn’t seem like much of a risk, Hackett said.
“That’s all I’m looking for, to make the deterrent bigger than the benefit,” Hackett said. The worst offenders tend to be motorists driving box trucks or pulling trailers, he added. “I am a strong advocate to put some sort of surveillance on the Cornish/Windsor Covered Bridge to protect it. It’s a national treasure.”
The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places.
O’Keefe said that in his 22 years in Lyme, there’s only been two arrests for damage to covered bridges. Most of the time, it’s a hit-and-run.
“We’ve never had anyone come and say they hit the bridge,” he said. “I would love to be able to put cameras up. That’s pretty good physical evidence that otherwise we wouldn’t have. Even if they require that we post the fact that there’s a camera, if people know they’re being watched, it’s a pretty good deterrent.”
Drye’s proposal was inspired by a law in Vermont that sets fines for disobeying posted signs around covered bridges and damaging them: A first offense is a $1,000 fine; if motorists impede traffic, that fine can grow to $2,000. A Vermont law also allows towns to set their own fines and, a couple years ago, Lyndonville, Vt., did just that: Motorists who damage covered bridges can be fined $5,000 for a first offense and $10,000 for a second offense.
Like their New Hampshire counterparts, Vermont officials have similar frustrations when covered bridges are damaged. The Lincoln and Taftsville covered bridges tend to be damaged the most, Woodstock Police Chief Joe Swanson said. Woodstock is allowed by law to put cameras at the bridges, he said, but hasn’t done so yet because of unreliable internet access and difficulty setting up infrastructure to support them.
“There’s also maintaining that … it’s an additional cost,” Swanson said.
In Thetford, the covered bridges are usually damaged a couple times a year, Town Manager Brian Story said.
“Most of the time when it happens, it’s ignorance or an accident,” he said. The majority are hit-and-runs.
“Oftentimes we’re very thankful that residents or people when they see that happen will take photos,” Story said.
In New Hampshire, lawmakers and police chiefs hope that if the bills pass, they will decrease the harm done to covered bridges.
“I have a fondness for our historic covered bridges, and I hate to see them damaged,” Hackett said.
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3221.