Still recovering from flood-related losses, Quechee Gorge businesses look ahead to construction

Venkat Narayanan, of Randolph, N.J., photographs the Quechee Gorge on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Quechee, Vt. With his wife Mridula Chandra and their son Vidur Venkat they were visiting Vermont for five days for the fall season.This was their first time to the state. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Venkat Narayanan, of Randolph, N.J., photographs the Quechee Gorge on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Quechee, Vt. With his wife Mridula Chandra and their son Vidur Venkat they were visiting Vermont for five days for the fall season.This was their first time to the state. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-02-2023 9:34 PM

QUECHEE — The restoration of Quechee Gorge Bridge starts soon, and businesses that will be affected by the anticipated traffic congestion are still recovering from the July flood.

Owners of retail shops and restaurants on Route 4 in Quechee said they saw a significant decline in patrons during the weeks that followed the July 10 flooding, which caused major damage across Vermont, including in parts of the Upper Valley.

Businesses that did not encounter flooding problems of their own were still affected indirectly by a decline in visitors to the Quechee Gorge, which funnels tourists to the assortment of antique shops, gift stores and eateries located nearby.

Several owners felt that online discourse discouraged many people from traveling in Vermont after the flood.

“We saw our sales plummet for two weeks because people were saying (on social media) not to come,” said Tina Tuckerman, owner of the Vermont Snack Shack on Quechee Gorge Village Drive.

Owners also attributed the drop in tourism to the closure of the trail that takes hikers down the gorge to the Ottauquechee River. Flooding from the river littered the paths with tree limbs, vegetation and debris.

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“Business has definitely been down some because of the trail,” said Patricia Button, owner of the Snack Bar at Quechee Gorge on Route 4.

The start of the $19.1 million rehabilitation of the historic bridge is anticipated to create traffic delays and parking challenges during the summer and fall for at least the next three years.

Engineers from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, or VTrans, announced last month that work will start in mid- or late August. The project is expected to take 3½ years to complete and will entail cleaning and painting the structural arches and frame, replacing deteriorated beams or joints and widening the existing sidewalks from 3½ feet to 6 feet.

In addition, the sidewalks will be extended along Route 4 to connect to the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center and the parking lots near the western end of the bridge.

“This bridge has never had this type of work since it was built in 1911, so it’s time to do that,” VTrans Project Engineer JB McCarthy said at a community meeting last week on the construction plan.

For most of the project’s duration, one lane of traffic and one sidewalk will be closed. A single lane of alternating traffic will be controlled initially by human flaggers. Temporary signals will be installed to manage traffic by the end of the 2023 construction season.

Work this year, focusing on cleaning and painting the structure, will begin this month and continue through November.

The traffic barriers will be removed during the winter months when construction is inactive, McCarthy said.

In 2024 and 2025, construction will run from April through November. The work will shift to repairing the bridge, replacing deteriorated components and building new sidewalks. Construction will take place on the southern side of the bridge in 2024 and switch to the northern side the following year.

The project is expected to finish at the end of June 2026. The last three months of work will include landscaping, final pavement laying and a last bridge inspection.

But owners of businesses near the gorge are worried about the timing of the construction, which is expected to create heavy traffic backup and parking difficulties during the fall foliage season.

Button, owner of the Snack Bar at Quechee Gorge, said the gorge attracts an average of 20-25 buses per day from September through mid-October.

Button said she is concerned that bus companies might decide not to pass by the gorge the next three years because of the inconvenience.

“And once you lose them, you can’t get them back,” Button said at the meeting.

Several business owners at the meeting said they are still recovering from the dip in sales due to indirect impacts from flooding.

Button said in a phone interview that she worries most about the effect of construction in 2025, when the work will be on the east side of the bridge — the same side of Route 4 as her business.

Many tour buses, Button said, park in the lot used by her restaurant, next to the bridge. This lot provides one of the shortest walks to the bridge, which Button said is beneficial to people who have difficulty walking, such as the elderly or people with disabilities.

But in 2025, the open sidewalk will be on the opposite side of Route 4. The nearest crosswalk to Button’s parking lot will be the Quechee Gorge Visitor Center, farther east of the bridge.

Button said the tourists will either have to backtrack to reach the overlook or the buses will need to find parking in the small lot on the western side of the bridge.

“In my opinion, it’s going to deter them from bringing the regular tourists through and it’s going to deter them in the future,” Button said at the meeting. “And that’s going to cripple businesses from Woodstock to Quechee.”

Business owners were also worried about the status of Quechee Covered Bridge, which was closed after one of its embankments was washed away by last month’s flood on the Ottauquechee River. The bridge, which connects Waterman Hill Road to Quechee Main Street, provides an alternative route to the lower village on the western side of the gorge.

With the closure of the covered bridge, vehicles must access Main Street at the intersection of Route 4, which requires some drivers to have to cross Quechee Gorge Bridge.

Hartford Public Works Director Bryan Gazda, said at the July 27 meeting that the town is currently seeking bids on the repair of Quechee Covered Bridge.

Gazda said the goal is to reopen the covered bridge by the end of August, though that will hinge on whether the town secures an available contractor.

Tuckerman — who worries about tourists being dissuaded by social media from visiting Quechee — said the business owners will need to work collaboratively on marketing to remind people that the gorge is still accessible and that the surrounding retail and dining options are open for business.

Kipp Miller is the owner of Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear, which is right next to the bridge. Miller, who has owned the shop since 1980, said he has weathered previous construction projects on the bridge, including the last major reconstruction work in 1989.

“I think (VTrans) covered the project well (at the July 27 meeting),” Miller said in an interview. “We will see how it works out.”

Miller said that he was relieved to learn that one sidewalk will be open at all times during the construction, which will ensure visitors can still enjoy the autumn scenery.

It also helps, at least for this year, that construction will start at the end of the summer, when schools resume.

“Things always slow down during that time,” Miller said.

McCarthy said in an email that the contract’s traffic control plan is currently awaiting state approval but that construction could start by mid-August.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.