Sand hill bridge fix faces many hurdles

MIDDLEBURY — The Sand Hill Bridge on Route 125 in East Middlebury, survivor of three major floods since it was erected in 1924, must now out-live a lively debate regarding its replacement and major detours that could be required during construction.

Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) officials last week unveiled the latest plans to replace the current bridge deck and railings with a new, wider structure that would greatly resemble the new, nearby Lower Plains Road Bridge. Plans call for the new span to be placed atop the current Roman arch-style base of the bridge once that sub-structure is sealed and repaired.

It’s a project that would expand the bridge’s width from the current 24 feet to approximately 36 feet, endowing it with 11-foot-wide lanes, 3-foot-wide shoulders and a 5-foot wide sidewalk. Work would include stabilizing slopes from the bridge approaches to the gorge beneath, and softening the rather sharp curve on which the span is located.

“This would save the expense and disruption of removal,” Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said of the goal of retaining the Roman arch base, a sturdy design that has stood the test in other locations — most notably at the Battell Bridge on Middlebury’s Main Street.

It’s a project most recently estimated at $2.1 million and not likely to be initiated before 2013, according to VTrans. But it is an undertaking that state officials said could be completed during one construction season, if area residents and property owners come to agreement on the plan.

But the location of the span is making the project a difficult proposition.

The Sand Hill Bridge is located over a scenic gorge and well-used swimming hole in the Middlebury River. It is situated next to an historic former ironworks property that local officials aren’t keen on seeing disturbed. And the bridge ensures flow along a busy Route 125, a scenic byway used by trucks to link up with Route 100 in Hancock and for residents and tourists looking to access Ripton and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus. Closure of the Sand Hill Bridge could require vehicles to detour approximately 34 miles down Route 7 south into Brandon, to pick up Route 73 to get to Route 100. The state does not have the authority to designate an alternative detour using local roads, one that many vehicles used when flooding washed out multiple roads in Ripton and East Middlebury in 2008: The use of Upper Plains Road and Beaver Pond Road in Salisbury to get from Route 7 to Ripton.

A clear majority of area residents and public officials acknowledge the Sand Hill Bridge needs a major overhaul. But they part ways on now to approach the fix. Some Ripton and East Middlebury residents aren’t keen on seeing the span closed for several months, noting a resulting delay in ambulance and fire service. There is a citizens’ petition on display at the Ripton General Store, among other places, that asks VTrans officials to “maintain this vital east-west transport corridor through phased construction, or by installing one of Vermont’s many temporary bridges.” Completely closing the bridge, according to the petition, would increase emergency service response times; hurt local businesses; and add “as many as 2,000 trips per day on Upper Plains Road, the North Branch Road and Notch Road.”

Robert Wagner is among the petition’s supporters. The Ripton resident and member of that town’s fire department said the state should have an obligation to mitigate the effects of a bridge closure — and not just close a road — before undertaking such a project. He said VTrans has several temporary bridges at its disposal that could be used at the Route 125 project site.

“VTrans needs to take into the costing of a project the social cost imposed on communities,” said Wagner, who also is an independent candidate for one of Addison County and Brandon’s two state Senate seats. “It is unacceptable for VTrans to cut folks off from emergency services, in their haste to latch onto (federal) stimulus cash. They owe the community for losses, including time, extra fuel, and business losses. If they were serious about Vermont's infrastructure, they’d be catching up on their lengthening maintenance backlog, rather than stimulus blacktopping of roads that don’t need it.”

But erecting a temporary span would be easier said than done, and it would likely add another entire construction season to the project’s duration, according to VTrans structures project manager Kristin Higgins.

VTrans would need an easement from the East Middlebury Fire District to use public land for both a temporary bridge and the permanent new bridge (since it is to be wider than the current span). The community’s Prudential Committee will meet in October to discuss the project and its impact on East Middlebury.

Susan Shashok is a member of the Prudential Committee and is one of the directors of the East Middlebury water system. She noted another looming complication for the bridge project: One of the community’s two primary water mains runs under the Sand Hill Bridge. That main would have to be replaced, leaving the community reliant on the one remaining main temporarily leaving no back-up.

Along with the water main, the Prudential Committee will consider potential impacts on the gorge, the ironworks, public safety, transportation and recreation at the swimming hole.

“I understand how people are concerned about this,” Shashok said.

Erik Bleich and his family live on Lower Plains Road. The family isn’t sure whether to support closure of the bridge for an expedited project that could greatly increase travel in front of their home, or advocating for a temporary bridge that could draw out construction and affect aesthetics and recreation at the Middlebury gorge. Higgins noted a temporary bridge would require removal of trees from the gorge area, as well as add $1 million to the cost of the job.

“Our family is still weighing the benefits of the two proposals,” Bleich said.

Meanwhile, Higgins said the bridge project is in a stalemate. The bridge, once deemed by VTrans inspectors to be in “fair” condition, has been downgraded to “poor.”

“There is quite a vocal group opposed to it, and a group that is for it,” Higgins said. “That’s going to prolong (the timetable).”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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