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Closed bridge halts school bus services in East Middlebury

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By JOHN FLOWERS

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School board directors are exploring ways of restoring bus service to many East Middlebury families who have had to find new ways to get their children to school since flood waters ravaged the Lower Plains Road Bridge on Aug. 6.

And the current lack of school busing isn’t the only issue pressing on the minds of the approximately 60 affected households on Lower Plains Road, Blueberry Lane, Daisy Lane and Pratt Road. Those residents — who must currently detour several miles to Route 7 via Plains Road (also known as Beaver Pond Road) in Salisbury — are also concerned about how their neighborhood will be served by emergency vehicles and snow plows.

“The biggest thing is you feel cut off from the town,” resident Michael Pixley said on Tuesday. “It’s amazing to think how that little bridge affects your lifestyle.”

Around a dozen affected residents brought their concerns to the ID-4 school board Monday evening. They emphasized the strain the added chauffeuring duties are placing on their personal and professional lives. Some families have had to dramatically reshuffle their schedules.

Jenny Quesnel and her husband, Tawnya, have one child each at the Mary Hogan school, Middlebury Union Middle School and Middlebury Union High School. Quesnel had hoped to re-enter the workforce full-time this month, but has been unable to do so because of her rigorous morning and afternoon drop-off and pick-up duties at all three schools.

“It feels like you’re making a constant circle,” said Quesnel, who placed her weekly fuel bill at around $200.

Quesnel said Lower Plains Road parents were originally told they’d have to supply their own transportation for the first week of school.

“It’s now the third week of school,” Quesnel said on Tuesday. “We really need some kind of solution here.”

Middlebury officials are proceeding with planning on a replacement bridge at Lower Plains Road, but they currently don’t foresee the new span being in place until next May. Middlebury, Ripton and Salisbury are among several communities still awaiting a disaster declaration through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would pave the way for up to 75-percent aid for damage to public property associated with the Aug. 6 flood.

“Our goal is to be ready to put the project out for bid as soon as the official declaration is made,” Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger wrote in a Sept. 8 e-mail to neighbors updating the status of the Lower Plains Road Bridge.

Affected families said they are pleased the town is working to replace the bridge, but they aren’t keen on waiting until May.

With that in mind, Serena Eddy-Moulton, chairwoman of the ID-4 board, said she and her colleagues will likely hold a special meeting within the next few days to review — and vote on — one or more options to restore school bus service to the Lower Plains Road neighborhood.

Those options, according to Eddy-Moulton, include:

• Applying for federal disaster relief aid to cover 75 percent of the costs of hiring an additional bus to serve families now segregated by the broken bridge. Eddy-Moulton noted the annual cost for an additional bus would be roughly $32,000 ($174 per day).

• Negotiating with the town of Salisbury to temporarily bus Lower Plains Road-area children to the Mary Hogan School.

• Building a footbridge to allow students to walk to a central collection point on the other side of the broken span, where they would be picked up and bused to school.

• Collaborating with Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) for bus services. Eddy-Moulton said the owners of The Vermont Home business on Route 7 in Salisbury (near the Plains Road detour) have offered their parking lot for use as a pick-up/drop-off location for students.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Eddy-Moulton said an ID-4 board member moved to immediately restore bus service to Lower Plains Road. That motion failed to get a second, however. Eddy-Moulton said the motion was not seconded because a majority of the board wanted to review all the options at its disposal before committing the school to the expense of an extra bus.

“We will try to maintain our communication with the Lower Plains Road families to come up with a thoughtful and reasonable solution for everyone involved,” Eddy-Moulton said.

EMERGENCY ACCESS

Lower Plains Road residents are also hoping for a quick resolution to a current lack of emergency access to their neighborhood. Emergency vehicles must also detour into Lower Plains Road via Route 7 and Salisbury.

“The emergency vehicle issue is of great concern to us,” said resident Jennifer Bleich. “We’re concerned about snow plowing, as well.”

Bleich and her husband, Erik, have joined some of their neighbors in urging town selectmen to negotiate for public use of a private road that hugs the Middlebury River and links Lower Plains Road to nearby Grist Mill Bridge Road. The Bleichs argue the Grist Mill Bridge is strong enough to at least temporarily accommodate traffic, including fire trucks, ambulances and school buses.

But Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said it would likely cost many thousands of dollars to make the private road — which he said is essentially a driveway — strong enough to support traffic.

“There are no negotiations at the moment and no progress,” Finger said of any dialogue to open the private road, which is controlled by three separate property owners.

Finger added it doesn’t look like it will be possible for the town to place a temporary span — also known as a Bailey bridge — at Lower Plains Road.

“The problem is that the abutments failed on the north and south sides of the bridge,” Finger said. “A Bailey bridge needs abutments to support it.”

Finger acknowledged it will be a challenge to deliver public services in a timely fashion to the Lower Plains Road neighborhood as long as the bridge is out of commission. He promised the town would do its best.

“We are not forgetting the people who are down there,” Finger said.

Meanwhile, Lower Plains Road residents noted they are losing time and money by having to make detours. Pixley calculates he will have to spend an extra $1,300 for fuel if has to make the detour through Salisbury for a year.

“We are hopeful there will be a financially feasible solution,” Quesnel said.

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