(This story is by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling of the Valley News, where it was published May 17.)
WOODSTOCK — A state project to overhaul a bridge on Route 4 as it goes through downtown next year is raising concerns from shopkeepers who fear they will lose customers, and from truckers who will be asked to observe a 40-mile regional detour.
The project is to replace the entire superstructure, including T-beams and railings, on Bridge 51, a picturesque but aging 34-foot-long structure that spans Kedron Brook and is listed as a historic resource within the Woodstock Village Historic District.
The total project to replace the 102-year-old bridge will take about two months, from early April to early June 2018, but the road will be closed to traffic for only a three-week period in April, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson was one of roughly 30 people who attended a public meeting VTrans held at the Town Hall on Tuesday night.
Many attendees were business owners, he said, who were concerned that the construction would eat up parking spots and disrupt their customer traffic. While the road is closed, local traffic will be rerouted for about a half-mile along Pleasant and Elm streets.
“Not everybody is happy about it,” Swanson said. “We all wish you could go to sleep at night and get up in the morning and have it done. But that technology is not here yet.”
But Swanson said he believed VTrans is making a good-faith effort to minimize the disruption, and that the town is participating in the drafting of construction pre-bid documents that will safeguard the town’s interest.
For example, a more expensive prefabricated replacement bridge is being used because it is quicker to install. He said the town plans to step up parking enforcement to ensure shoppers have a place to park, and will work with the contractor to ensure the project occupies as compact an area on the valuable streetscape as possible.
The other potential concern is the regional detour for trucks that can’t safely navigate the narrow residential streets of the local detour for cars.
Project plans show that eastbound trucks will be detoured south on Route 106, east through West Windsor on Route 44, and then north through Hartland on routes 5 and 12, a 40-mile path that takes about 75 minutes.
Roland Bellavance, who runs a trucking company in Barre and serves as president of the Vermont Truck and Bus Association, said the detour was among the longest he’s seen in 40 years of trucking.
“That’s ugly,” he said when the route was described to him Wednesday.
“If you’ve got an appointment time, it can be pretty expensive, because you’ve got to make a pickup or dropoff at a specific time,” he said.
Bellavance said the key in this case will be good signs that let truckers know about the obstruction miles before they hit it, so they can plan an alternate route.
Truckers driving east, he said, would need to know about the detour in Killington in order for it to do them any good, while westbound truckers should know by the time they get off Interstate 89.
He said the state should consider closing that entire section of Route 4 to truck traffic to minimize the instances of truckers finding themselves at the construction site, choosing between a 40-mile legal detour, and the temptation to try to navigate the half-mile residential route.
“That’s where you can get into trouble in a hurry,” Bellavance said. He estimated that something like 5 percent of truckers would be likely to try to skirt the regional detour by taking the unauthorized local route.
Swanson said Woodstock will be doing what it can to discourage detour scofflaws from trying to travel the narrow streets and sharp corners.
“They’ll regret it,” he said. “We’re planning on stepped-up truck enforcement.”
Annabelle Dally, a Transportation Agency spokeswoman for the project, said the sign package for the project had not been finalized, but that the concern would receive consideration in the planning process.
Swanson said Woodstock also has asked for signs that would not unduly discourage tourists from visiting its downtown area. He said the project is happening at a good time of year, because it roughly coincides with the slowest season for tourism.
Matt Galanes is vice president of finance for Cota & Cota, a heating fuel contractor based in nearby White River Junction.
Galanes said the timing of the project also is fortuitous for fuel drivers, because they’re not pressed into service to haul fuel as much as they are in other months.
“It will be more of a nuisance, but we’ll accommodate it and work ahead,” he said.
Agency officials said the bridge needs to be replaced to provide continued safe passage over the brook.
The bridge deck and superstructure are listed as being in “fair” condition in state inspection reports, and in 2013 an inspector noted large areas of the surface of the bridge were deteriorating and saturated with rust stains and efflorescence, the whitish residue that results when salt migrates out of a porous surface.
The inspector also noted areas of exposed rebar.
The project has not yet gone out to bid, but VTrans lists it with a broad cost range of between $1 million and $2.5 million.
The new bridge will include two lanes of traffic, sidewalks and parking, and a prefabricated concrete railing that is a rough approximation of the current railing, and which meets historic and design requirements, according to VTrans.
The project is part of VTrans’ larger “South Central Vermont Bridge Project,” which also included a 2016 bridge repair on Route 106 in Woodstock, as well as two projects in Ludlow this year and one on Route 4 in Killington scheduled for 2019.
For the downtown Woodstock project, Swanson and Dally both said there will be more public meetings between now and the April start date to gather input, answer questions and address concerns.