2017-02-15 / Front Page

VT reps call on NH to fix bridge

By TORY JONES

BELLOWS FALLS — Four Vermont representatives are asking the state of New Hampshire to honor an agreement made nearly 23 years ago, and finally repair the historic Charles N. Vilas Bridge between Walpole and Bellows Falls.

Reps. Carolyn Partridge of Windham and Matthew Trieber of Rockingham, both representing D-Windham 3, and Reps. David Deen of Westminster and Michael Mrowicki of Putney, both representing D-Winham 4, introduced J.R.H. 5, a Vermont Senate and House “Joint resolution urging the prompt rehabilitation of the Vilas Bridge” on Feb. 7 in Montpelier.

Rockingham Interim Municipal Manager Shane O’Keefe said after a regular Bellows Falls Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 14, that he has received a copy of the joint resolution.

The four legislators are asking that the General Assembly implore New Hampshire state officials and its Congressional delegation to “make every possible effort, on a timely basis, to seek state or federal funding for the rehabilitation of the Vilas Bridge.”

The joint resolution describes the State of New Hampshire’s “wanton neglect” of the bridge as a cause of significant economic and traffic problems in Bellows Falls.

Wording in the bill points out that the 635-foot Vilas Bridge, built in 1930, spans the Connecticut River and was financed with $30,000 in grants from each of the connected towns of Rockingham and Walpole, and that Charles Vilas, for whom the bridge is named, provided “significant financial support.”

The bridge became a direct gateway from New Hampshire into downtown Bellows Falls. Despite the bridge’s original funding formula, because it spans the Connecticut River, 93 percent of the bridge is located in New Hampshire, and a similar percentage of the repair costs should be the Granite State’s responsibility, according to the legislators.

They cited a 1934 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case State of Vermont vs. State of New Hampshire, 290 U.S. 579, that states the river lies within the State of New Hampshire up to the Vermont low-water mark.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the New Hampshire State Historic Preservation Officer entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Vilas Bridge in May 1994, and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) signed that memorandum in concurrence, with New Hampshire’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also signing in July 1994.

The 1994 MOU recognized the bridge’s eligibility for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, provided that the bridge was “of sufficient quality, location and importance that only under exceptional circumstances … will the bridge be removed,” and further guaranteed long-term maintenance in accordance with New Hampshire’s 10-year Highway Program.

The joint resolution also mentions that on March 31, 2006, a similar resolution — J.R.H. 7, “Joint resolution urging the state of New Hampshire to expedite the restoration of the Vilas Bridge,”  — was adopted that year by the Vermont General Assembly.

Yet, the new resolution states, NHDOT closed the span in 2009 to all vehicular and pedestrian traffic due to its poor condition, causing approximately 4,600 cars that crossed the bridge daily to use alternative routes, such as over the Arch Bridge, which is often blocked by railroad traffic.

The Vilas Bridge was removed from New Hampshire’s 10-year Highway Plan “although the New Hampshire Transportation Advisory Committee supposedly still discusses the bridge’s future,” legislators wrote.

They also noted that the town of Rockingham has requested the Vermont Attorney General to serve as an intermediary in the town’s request to New Hampshire state officials to assist in repairing the bridge.

Following its introduction on Feb. 7, the joint resolution was treated as a bill, and has been sent to the House Committee on Transportation.

The Secretary of State was also directed by the four legislators to send a copy of the resolution to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, the New Hampshire Executive Council, New Hampshire Commissioner of Transportation Victoria Sheehan, the chairs of the New Hampshire House and Senate transportation committees, the New Hampshire Congressional Delegation, Vermont Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn, Vermont Attorney General T. J. Donovan, and the Vermont Congressional Delegation.

As of Wednesday, Feb. 15, the Vilas Bridge resolution was not yet scheduled for discussion for the House Committee on Transportation agenda for the week of Feb. 14-17.

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