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Rehab of Lyme-East Thetford bridge could keep span closed for 18 months

  • The 85-year-old bridge over the Connecticut River carrying drivers between Lyme, N.H., and Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2022, is expected to be closed for repairs for 18 months, from spring 2023 to fall 2024. The New Hampshire Department of Transportation rejected the possibility of adding a temporary bridge to the $11 million project because it would disturb a historic home or a major utility running under the river. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/26/2022 8:51:12 PM
Modified: 9/26/2022 8:51:15 PM

LYME — The good news is that after a first round of bidding failed to attract any contractors willing to take on the Lyme-East Thetford Bridge refurbishment project, a second round of bidding in May elicited three bids, with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation ultimately selecting one at the end of July. 

The bad news is that in order to entice bidders this time around, NHDOT will allow the bridge to be closed to traffic significantly longer — turning what was once expected to be 10 months of bridge closure time spread over two construction seasons into one, continuous 18-month-long closure. The increased length of the disruption is worrying residents on both sides of the river, but state and town officials say there isn’t a workable alternative.

According to the NHDOT, the increased bridge closure time was necessitated by labor shortages that created enough uncertainty for contractors that none felt confident they could successfully complete the project with the original 10 months of bridge closure.

“We had six bidders that pulled plans the first time around and none of them bid because of the labor market, they couldn’t reliably staff the project,” Jennifer Reczek, NHDOT’s bridge consultant design chief and project manager for the bridge rehabilitation, said. 

“For that contract we had given them one season worth of closure and then the bridge needed to be reopened and then they had about two months to paint it the following year,” she said. “And they said they just can’t depend on having the labor to do this amount of work in that amount of time.”

DOT selected the lowest responsive bidder, New England Infrastructure, Inc., of Hudson, Mass., for the $11 million project. The Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration concurred with DOT’s selection. 

The bridge, which was built in 1937 and has been included on New Hampshire’s “red list” since 2013, is now expected to be closed beginning in April or May 2023 and remain closed continuously until the project is scheduled to be finished on Oct. 25, 2024.

“There is work that can be done over the winter … we needed to give them a fair shot at actually completing it,” Reczek said, noting that public hearings will be held this fall that will further detail the project timeline.

The longer closure period exacerbates what local officials and residents say is already an untenable situation, with the resulting 15-mile detour to the north or 24-mile detour to the south making life more difficult on both sides of the river.

According to NHDOT data from 2020, the Lyme-East Thetford Bridge sees about 1,900 cars per day, well below the 13,460 that make the trip daily over the Ledyard Bridge between Hanover and Norwich and the 3,550 that make the trip over the Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge between Fairlee and Orford. Still the inconvenience and disruptions for residents are expected to be significant.

“Of course we are not happy about it because it’s a hardship for residents and business both,” Thetford Selectboard Chairwoman Sharon Harkay said. “Even kids traveling to school. We have kids going both ways.” 

Liz Ryan Cole, a Thetford resident and part-owner of the Loch Lyme Lodge in Lyme who has been working to galvanize local opposition to the bridge closure, predicted that people will change their habits in response to the bridge’s closure. 

“People will not go shopping at Cedar Circle (in Thetford) from Lyme,” Cole said. “People have said things like ‘my child care is on the other side of the bridge, what are we going to do?’ ”

She also points out that many area businesses are already having trouble finding enough employees, a situation that will only get worse if the bridge closure effectively cuts off large portions of the local workforce from their places of employment. 

“Our problem is more about our employees,” Cole said, noting that her gardener has clients in both Lyme and Thetford. “How will they get to work? It’s people who work on both sides of the river who are going to find it very hard.” 

The solution, Cole said, is to reevaluate the idea of installing a temporary bridge that will allow cross-river traffic while the bridge is refurbished. 

The NHDOT previously looked into installing a temporary bridge, but decided not to pursue that path for a number of reasons, according to Reczek, the project manager. If built on the north side of the existing bridge, a temporary one would require the demolition of a historic register eligible house — something Reczek said the NHDOT would not pursue for a temporary use — and a temporary bridge on the south side would be impeded by a major utility crossing under the river, private residences and negative environmental impacts to prime farmlands, wetlands and essential fish habitat.  

“The state only owns the land the bridge sits on,” Ben Kilham, a Lyme Selectboard member, said. “It doesn’t own any of the land up or downstream from it. I don’t think we have any leverage. Other than not being happy, I don’t know that there is anything else to do.” 

An additional consideration is that the clock is ticking on federal money earmarked to the project, which could be jeopardized if taking another look at a temporary crossing delays the project any further. The Federal Highway Administration is funding $9.56 million of the $11 million project.  

“Our federal money comes in certain fiscal years and this is a big project that has pushed a couple years,” Reczek said. “We’ve got money to spend that needs to be spent.”

But the change from 10 months of road closures to 18 months does call for a re-evaluation, according to Lyme’s representatives to the New Hampshire Legislature. 

“All of us who represent Lyme in the State Legislature — Mary Hakken-Phillips, Jim Murphy, Sharon Nordgren, and I — are very concerned about the lengthened closure of the Lyme-Thetford bridge,” state Rep. Russell Muirhead, D-Hanover, said in emailed comments to the Valley News. “Given that the bridge closure is now slated to be 18 months — and that’s a best-case projection — we think the NHDOT should re-engage the question of constructing a temporary bridge.”

For her part, Cole hopes that the impending reality of an 18-month road closure will build momentum for a new set of public hearings that will allow the community to express their support for a temporary bridge. 

“Our next step is to try to get a meeting of the multiple people and entities who will be very negatively affected by this,” Cole said. “To say ‘No. Stop. You haven’t had hearings in years, this hasn’t been public, and this new change of projected 18 months of closure will be devastating for our communities. Put in a temporary bridge.’”

While the idea of a temporary bridge may be gaining new momentum on both sides of the river, actually doing it is not that simple, Reczek said.  

“I think people say ‘oh, just plunk it down right next to the bridge that is there,’ but we have to be able to get access,” she said. “Sometimes these sites are just very challenging and again for the traffic volume that is out there, I know it is important for the people that use it every day, but as we look at our bigger system it is a fairly low volume road.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com. 


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