Some 30,000 Memorial Day travelers annually start their summer driving to Vermont through Interstate 91’s southern gateway. But is a $60 million bridge replacement project — the biggest in state history — about to bring them all to a stop?
A typical daily count of 20,000 commuters, tourists and truckers — speeding to and from Massachusetts, Connecticut and other population centers along the East Coast — usually motor between I-91 exits 2 and 3 by crossing a 1,000-foot span over Brattleboro’s West River.
But bridge reconstruction, lane closures and increased visitor traffic — the state estimates as many as 10,000 more vehicles will travel the highway each day this long weekend — have led in recent holidays to up to 5-mile backup of motorists facing delays of up to an hour and a half.
“You can spend a very long time bumper to bumper at a dead stop,” says former Gov. Howard Dean, who found out firsthand one Sunday last summer. “I didn’t know what it was.”
He’s not alone. State officials have turned to publicizing the project through flashing road signs, text alerts and a website (www.i91brattleborobridge.com) with live video feeds. But they say the only way to fully curb congestion is to finish construction. And workers are facing their own delays.
Contractors say wildly fluctuating winter weather that both flooded and iced over the river below has slowed their efforts by months. To compensate, they have labored nights and Saturdays in hopes of concluding as scheduled by the end of this year. Even so, Vermonters and visitors traveling the interstate will see cranes through at least 2016, officials acknowledge.
“With a $60 million project, things happen that can make it more of a challenge,” says Richard Tetreault, chief engineer and highway division director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Some history: Workers broke ground on Interstate 91 in southernmost Guilford in 1957 and completed the West River span for about $5 million in 1960. Going on to finish the state’s last interstate link — a stretch from St. Johnsbury to the New Hampshire border — in 1982, crews have watched traffic and road salt take their toll on the highway’s oldest and most outdated sections.
Two years ago, the state hired FIGG Bridge Engineers and PCL Civil Constructors to dismantle the old rusting steel span between exits 2 and 3 and design and build a new concrete one. Workers began by demolishing the two-lane northbound bridge and detouring all vehicles on the remaining southbound structure, which is restricted to one lane of traffic in each direction until it, too, will be razed.
Contractors now are erecting a 100-foot-tall replacement span as part of a state record-breaking project (the $78 million Lake Champlain Bridge that opened in 2011 was a New York effort) for which the U.S. government is covering 90 percent of the bill.
Locals are paying their own price. In April of 2014, officials found some of the metal framework was shifting so precariously during removal, they had to close the highway in both directions for nearly an entire weekend and reroute every car, truck and tractor-trailer onto Brattleboro residential streets.
In September, four workers were hospitalized briefly when a section of construction staging collapsed.
Drivers, for their part, face congestion most weekday mornings and evenings. But the momentary crunch is nothing compared to the delays encountered by weekend and holiday motorists — a majority who are out-of-staters unaware of what’s happening.
“We’re pretty much on budget,” Tetreault says, “although we’ve had to amend things a bit and spend a little more on traffic management.”
The state, for example, has established a new text alert system that offers construction news to anyone who texts 313131 with the keyword “I91Brat.”
Officials also will outline the project at a public tour on June 13 and meeting with Vermont Transportation Secretary Sue Minter on June 23, with specifics to be announced on www.i91brattleborobridge.com.
To ease problems in the meantime, the state will close exit 3 on-ramps on Memorial Day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. so local drivers won’t add to interstate traffic. Officials are encouraging motorists with flexible schedules to travel at off-peak hours or use nearby Route 5. For everyone else, they’re advising patience.
“At the end of the day,” Tetreault says, “the project will produce a signature bridge that’s going to serve the state for many, many decades.”
Author’s note: Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: [email protected]