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Towns Still Grappling with Storm Damage on Rt. 132

  • Photographed on Oct. 6, 2017, traffic on Route 132 between Strafford, Vt., and Norwich, Vt., has been slowed by three temporary traffic lights due to a lane closure in three locations. The roadway has been damaged by the July 1 flooding of the Ompompanoosuc River. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Photographed on Oct. 6, 2017, concrete blocks shoring up the Route 132 roadway near the intersection with Tucker Hill Road toppled over after the Ompompanoosuc River flooded in Strafford, Vt., on July 1. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 07, 2017

Thetford — Three months after a chain of July rainstorms washed away many of the region’s roads, state and local leaders are still working to repair heavy damage to Route 132, a major commuter thoroughfare in four Upper Valley towns.

In Thetford, where three sections of the road are narrowed to a single lane directed by traffic lights, town officials are pushing through a thicket of state and federal paperwork in hopes of completing the project before winter.

“People are saying, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ ” Selectboard Chairman Stuart Rogers said in an interview on Friday. “It’s the process that we’re required to do that takes this amount of time.”

Even though Route 132 has a state road number, it’s officially classified as a “state-numbered town highway,” which means that the towns it passes through — Norwich, Sharon, Strafford and Thetford — are responsible for the repairs.

“This is basically a town project,” said Chris Bump, the Agency of Transportation’s district project manager in White River Junction.

Though the state may not be handling the project directly, Vermont officials are helping the municipalities navigate the complex process to qualify for reimbursement under the Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief Program, Bump said.

Bump said Thetford had by far the most damage left to repair on Route 132. Norwich and Strafford already had cleaned up most of their sections, and Sharon was nearly done as well, he said.

Neither state nor town officials knew where the “state-numbered town highway” designation came from, but they said there were only a few other such roads in the state.

“Are they aware that we’d love for them to take it on?” Rogers said of state officials. “They are.”

The torrential storms that rolled through the region on July 1 dumped at least 3 inches of rain in one day and delivered millions of dollars in damage, triggering presidential disaster declarations for wide swaths of Vermont and New Hampshire.

That unlocked significant amounts of aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government organizations, including the Federal Highway Administration.

Thetford was among the hardest-hit towns in the July storms, with severe damage to many of its dirt roads. Rogers said the town was seeking to open a line of credit of about $2.5 million, at least half of which could go to Route 132 work.

Thetford may obtain up to 100 percent federal reimbursement for its costs on Route 132, officials said, though doing so means meeting a long list of requirements.

Those requirements, along with the severity of the damage, are responsible for the delays to repairs, Rogers said.

“It’s very complicated work, and because it’s federal highway (aid), you have to follow it by a certain process,” he said. “If you don’t, you own it, which means you don’t get any federal reimbursement.”

Rogers said state and federal officials had to sign off on the plans for each repair before it went out to bid, and then give their approval for reimbursement after completion.

Some of the more serious spots on Route 132, including washouts that reached bedrock, needed extensive engineering, he said.

In cases where the damage goes beyond the public right of way, the town had to obtain easements from private property owners. In at least one case, the property owner signing off on the town’s plans was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the Union Village Dam located along the highway.

Rogers said Thetford had divided 15 pieces of damage into three phases — A, B and C — in increasing order of seriousness.

Phase A, comprising such easier fixes as cleaning out inundated culverts, is done, he said. Phase B, which includes moderately sized washouts, will begin on Monday.

And Phase C, involving two instances of “total slope failure” that will require drilling down to bedrock and pinning new supports there, is going out to bid soon, he said.

Officials hoping for federal reimbursement for their emergency work have 180 days from the time of the damage to complete the projects and apply for 100 percent funding, Rogers and Bump said.

After that deadline, which falls roughly around Christmas, a project is classified “permanent” and not “emergency” work, which means potential reimbursement rates fall to about 81 percent. State and local governments would split the remainder.

Upper Valley residents who depend on Route 132 are bearing with the clogged artery and finding alternate routes for now, while also wondering what will happen if the work isn’t completed by winter.

With its three temporary traffic lights for alternating one-way traffic in the problem spots, Thetford suddenly has become the most jammed town for motorists in the county.

“We have more lights than the entire rest of Orange County,” Rogers said.

“It’s horrible,” Randy Coffin said of her commute, standing next to her car on Thursday afternoon outside Coburns’ General Store in South Strafford.

Coffin, a Strafford resident, said she regularly uses Route 132 to reach her charity work and care for an aging relative in Norwich.

The traffic lights along the corridor have slowed down Coffin and some other drivers so much that they now avoid that section by traveling on New Boston Road.

That, in turn, has irked residents on New Boston, a less traveled road with long sections of dirt, and sheriff’s deputies have begun camping out there to catch speeders, she said.

Coffin expressed concern about what might happen if the work isn’t done in time for cold weather.

“Where are they going to put the snow when the winter comes?” she said.

Asked the same question on Friday, Rogers said Thetford officials were “very much trying” to complete the work before Christmastime, when the deadline for full federal aid expires.

“We’re going to continue working up until the point where we can’t,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.