By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen are backing off their original pitch to state officials for a temporary span to take traffic from the Pulp Mill Bridge when it closes for extensive repairs, possibly in 2011. They will instead lobby for paving and intersection improvements to handle the extra traffic that will hit downtown during the project.
Selectmen had insisted that a temporary span be installed next to the historic Pulp Mill Bridge during a major rebuild that is expected to last more than a year. The Pulp Mill Bridge, built in 1820, links Middlebury to Weybridge across the Otter Creek at Seymour Street Extension. It is the last remaining functioning double-laned covered bridge in Vermont.
It’s a bridge that has been asked to take on an increasing load, resulting in some major deterioration that currently limits traffic to one vehicle per lane at a time within the 195-foot-long span. State transportation officials have estimated the repairs at $3.5 million, of which more than $1 million would pay for the temporary span to accommodate the roughly 2,000 cars that travel the route daily.
John Zicconi, director of planning, outreach and community affairs for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (Vtrans), warned Middlebury officials on Tuesday that a temporary bridge would add substantial time and logistical problems, as well as money, to the project.
“It could add a couple of years,” Zicconi said of a temporary bridge, meaning the project might not begin until 2013, instead of 2011. That’s because a temporary span would trigger an archaeological survey or right-of-way negotiations with neighbors, or both, according to Zicconi.
“I have seen projects delayed much more than two years because of archaeological issues,” Zicconi said. “The topography (in the project area) is also challenging.”
Zicconi presented a chart showing two possible locations for a temporary bridge. The first, which would be erected immediately north of the Pulp Mill Bridge, would require the construction of a new pier and the use of substantial yard frontage from the Cobden family in Weybridge.
The second option would call for a temporary span to replace a pedestrian walkway running to the south of the Pulp Mill Bridge. This scenario would place the bridge barrier within a few feet of a Middlebury home.
“If you were living in that house I don’t understand how that would work,” Zicconi said. “We would have to remove shrubbery, their walk-way, their stairs and have to build a retaining wall.”
He noted the second option would also require construction of a pier.
“It’s very tight, it’s costly and it adds time to the project at a time when everyone is trying to get this done as quickly as possible,” Zicconi said.
With that in mind, Zicconi urged selectmen to consider forgoing a temporary bridge so as to get the project completed more quickly. But he acknowledged that this would mean detours during the estimated 12-to-16-month timeframe of the Pulp Mill Project — an undertaking that is expected to leave the span with only 30 percent of its original timber.
“From our point of view, the best way to move forward that we can see is to close the bridge and get at it as fast as we can,” Zicconi said. Without the added permitting/construction hurdles of a temporary bridge, Zicconi said Vtrans could possibly even launch the project next fall.
Middlebury selectmen told Zicconi they are not pleased with the prospect of seeing detour traffic added to the 12,000 daily car trips that already flood the village.
“To be frank, I appreciate that this direction (of no temporary bridge) would simplify your lives, and that it would save some dollars in the state coffers, but it would not simplify the lives of people in Middleury,” said selectboard chairman John Tenny. “When we have had closures of the Pulp Mill Bridge in the past, you could see the impact immediately and forcefully in this community.”
The resulting traffic jams have occurred at Routes 30 and 125, Tenny noted, because the intersections have become overburdened. He added Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge project will add another wild card to the mix. That project, now under way, will make College Street one-way; add a connector road between Weybridge and South Main streets behind the municipal building; and create a rotary intersection serving Cross, Main, College and Park streets and Bakery Lane.
“Those (new road projects) are under construction, to be tested… and there is a learning curve for all of our residents at the same time,” Tenny said.
Major elements of the Cross Street Bridge project are slated to be done by November of 2010, with full completion in the spring of 2011. The town and Middlebury College are financing that $16 million project through local option taxes and a sizable donation from the college.
While selectmen want the temporary bridge, they served notice to Zicconi they may be willing to bargain for an alternative. Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger suggested the impact of closing the Pulp Mill Bridge could be softened somewhat if Vtrans agrees to pave portions of some roads — such as Weybridge Street — that will bear the brunt of detours. Officials added the state could also help improve some downtown intersections that would be affected.
“We share the belief that we should not waste local, state and federal dollars, that we do need to move with some real schedule and urgency toward rehabilitation of the Pulp Mill Bridge, or that will be lost,” Tenny said. “At the same time, we think it would be reasonable to have your help with some of these other issues. If we could work toward that, I think we probably we could find an accord where people could put up with the inconvenience.”
Weybridge Selectman Steve Smith said moving quickly with the Pulp Mill bridge project could avert a longer inconvenience in the future if the span suffers further deterioration through inaction.
“It strikes me that a planned closing of the Pulp Mill Bridge might be better than an unplanned closing of a longer period of time,” Smith said.