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Officials pan plan to close Pulp Mill Bridge for year-long repair

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury and Weybridge selectmen on Monday balked at signing an agreement with the state to initiate major repairs to the historic Pulp Mill Bridge, arguing some of the proposed work will simply perpetuate architectural flaws within the span and that the town could not afford to have the structure closed for a full year during renovations.

Erected in 1820 across the Otter Creek, the Pulp Mill Bridge links Middlebury with Weybridge across Seymour Street. It is one of only six double-laned covered bridges remaining in the United States, according to Sean James, an engineer with Hoyle, Tanner & Associates. The firm recently completed a study of the span, including a proposed list of repairs needed to ensure its ongoing ability to handle heavier vehicles and traffic.

The proposed repair list includes:

• Replacing of the standing seam roof installed on the bridge three years ago. James explained the current roof will need to be removed to allow heavy equipment to access the network of rafters, cross-braces, tie beams and knee braces that will require extensive work/replacement.

• Performing major work on the bridge’s truss system, including replacement of many of the vertical timbers.

• Replacing of 16 percent of the exterior north arch and 27 percent of the exterior south arch.

• Complete replacing of the floor deck, along with 16 percent of the floor beams.

• Installing new siding on the span.

• Paving 100 feet at each approach of the bridge.

Former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., secured $1.85 million in federal funds to help pay for the Pulp Mill Bridge repairs, currently estimated at $2.25 million in 2008 dollars and $2.6 million in 2011 dollars. Middlebury selectmen have stressed they don’t want major work done on the Pulp Mill Bridge until 2011, the date by which the town hopes to have a new in-town bridge open in the downtown. As it stands, the Pulp Mill Bridge is one of only two village crossings of the Otter Creek (the other being the Battell Bridge), and selectmen don’t want to lose either one for an extended period of time. The Pulp Mill Bridge cannot accommodate larger vehicles, such as large trucks or fire engines.

“Sometimes I am concerned that some folks don’t have a good sense of the problems in this community and in surrounding communities with a (town) this size having but one place to cross for most traffic, and any traffic that can, uses the Pulp Mill Bridge,” Selectman Dean George said. “Putting it out of service for a year and having the limitations that we do, it’s essentially putting us into a gridlock situation… ”

James and John Weaver, project manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT), told selectmen the scope of work does not include money — at least $600,000 — for a temporary bridge to accommodate traffic while the Pulp Mill Bridge is under construction. As a result, traffic would have to be rerouted in and around downtown during the 12-month renovation period.

That thought did not settle well with town officials.

“The downtown district community can’t really sustain itself well when it is forced to become a detour,” Tenny said. “We are fighting with an undersupply of transportation resource now which, with the community’s own money, we’re improving. But we need to keep everything moving as smoothly as possible to make that work.”

Selectmen are counting on the new in-town bridge being open before work begins on the Pulp Mill Bridge. That, of course, is likely to increase repair costs for the historic covered span, meaning the AOT will need to apply for additional federal dollars to meet costs.

Local officials and a contractor who has worked on the Pulp Mill Bridge also voiced concern that some of the repairs proposed for the historic span were not necessary and merely added to the weight the structure is being asked to bear.

Jan Lewandoski, a Greensboro Bend-based contractor who has made repairs to the Pulp Mill Bridge on several occasions, said he believes the Hoyle, Tanner & Associates’ proposed plan, among other things, emphasizes replacement of the top cord members of the bridge, while the “real necessity is to rebuild and recamber the bottom cord correctly.” Lewandoski recommended that laminated arches on the bridge — which he believes were mistakenly added to the exterior of the span circa 1860 — should be removed.

“I think a lot of money in the proposal is being spent fixing the mistaken repairs of the past; that’s what I fear,” Lewandoski told selectmen.

Weaver countered that the jury is still out as to the usefulness of the laminated arches. He said the arches have “deflected” over the years, showing they have “carried some of the load over the years.”

Weaver explained that renovations to the Pulp Mill Bridge will need to get the blessing of the Vermont Historic Covered Bridge Committee (VHCBC). The panel must sign off on a repair plan in order for the $1.85 million in federal funds to be released.

“My feeling is that the (VHCBC) will want the laminated arches to stay in, but I am not sure,” Weaver said.

Some selectmen said they found it confusing that the VHCBC could insist on retaining the allegedly superfluous laminated arches, while authorizing a standing seam roof for the structure.

“I’m hearing what you’re saying, that we’ve got to preserve this bridge, that is we’ve got to keep it historic,” Selectman Don Keeler said. “But I still have a problem with a standing seam roof on a bridge you are trying to preserve. They didn’t build those bridges with standing seam roofs. We can’t change something here, but we can put a metal roof on it? Come on.”

Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington suggested a compromise: The laminated arches could be removed during repairs, yet chronicled and depicted in an exhibit next to the structure.

Selectman Victor Nuovo said Dunnington’s idea should be explored.

“When does something become historic?” Nuovo asked. “The question is, in terms of historic preservation, do you preserve mistakes or do you correct them and somehow record them.”

Weaver and James promised to review the concerns voiced at Monday’s meeting and take another look at the renovation plan. In the meantime, Weybridge and Middlebury selectmen will hold off from signing a finance and maintenance agreement with the state that is needed to get the project rolling.

“I think from Middlebury’s standpoint, and I think from Weybridge’s standpoint as well, we would hope we would have the most durable of repairs and the best efficiency of dollars and resources in doing that,” Tenny said. “Obviously, we are sympathetic to the restoration guidelines, but I think for us, form follows function. We may not have that choice, but we put our two cents on that.”

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