Frugality connects twin-state bridge committee

Brattleboro bridge

A project advisory committee for a proposed Connecticut River bridge linking Brattleboro with Hinsdale, N.H., reviews plans Monday with Bill Saffian, right, of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont and New Hampshire project advisory committee picking a design for a proposed Connecticut River bridge linking the two states appeared to be the picture of connectedness.

Then came a PowerPoint presentation about the cost.

Brattleboro residents and their Granite State neighbors in Hinsdale are seeking a new span to replace two nearly century-old steel arches classified by the Federal Highway Administration as “structurally deficient.”

The Vermont town has a larger population by a 3-1 ratio. But because New Hampshire controls the waterway, it has to pick up the bill.

A project advisory committee of residents from both states met Monday to decide the design of the bridge piers. The Vermonters cast their eyes on how each looked. But with an estimated $1 million difference between the least-expensive two-columned option and a V-shaped alternative, their New Hampshire colleagues focused on the bottom line.

“What’s the price?” Rep. Michael Abbott, D-Hinsdale, asked at the start of the meeting.

“That’s later in the presentation,” replied Bill Saffian of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Bridge Design.

The committee eventually learned the bridge would cost an estimated $36 million, give or take what’s added or subtracted.

“I don’t mean to sound cavalier,” Saffian told the committee, “but to us it doesn’t matter which pier shape you choose because we’re going to incur some relatively minor costs with whatever you pick.”

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell asked which design would best endure fluctuating weather.

“Decades from now, with different climate conditions — I worry about things we don’t know and can’t know in a 100-year timeframe,” he said.

Erica Roper, a transportation planner with the Windham Regional Commission, believed the more expensive V-shape would withstand changes in water and ice levels caused by global warming.

“I think it has greater flexibility,” she said.

But the New Hampshire state representative was more concerned with the additional $1 million cost.

“For me, that’s a significant amount of nickels,” Abbott said.

Added Robert Harcke of the Hinsdale Commercial and Industrial Development Corp.: “I believe in not spending any money we don’t have to.”

Abbott made a motion calling for the cheaper alternative, and the committee approved it unanimously.

The vote was a rare moment of short work in an otherwise long process. New Hampshire has talked about replacing the 1920s steel arches ever since first documenting deficiencies in 1977.

The new bridge would be built 1,000 feet south of the existing spans and just below the parking lot of the Marlboro College Graduate Center. New Hampshire hopes to advertise for a contractor in the fall of 2019.

“We’ve committed to doing it,” Saffian said. “It’s in the state plan.”

Kevin O'Connor

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