BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Elected officials from Rockingham and Bellows Falls, as well as Walpole, New Hampshire are collaborating a joint letter to New Hampshire legislators asking the state to fund a $10 million repair project of the historic Vilas Bridge as a priority project in the next 10-year transportation plan.
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Rockingham Selectboard will review a draft of the joint letter to New Hampshire state representatives requesting the state to begin the Vilas Bridge restoration project as early as 2022 or 2023.
“This 1930 bridge was promised to be restored in an agreement between the State of New Hampshire and the U.S. Government,” the letter states. “This repeated delay of work amounts to demolition by neglect and our communities have come together to support this reconnection.”
The Rockingham and Walpole Selectboards decided to send the letter during a joint discussion about the bridge on Nov. 7. According to Rockingham Town Manager Wendy Harrison, in comments enclosed in the Rockingham meeting packet the Bellows Falls trustees will also sign the letter once complete.
“The Vilas Bridge is critical to our communities, economies, safety, environment, history and future,” the letter states.
Prior to the bridge’s closure in 2009 by New Hampshire, the Vilas Bridge carried 4,600 vehicles per day between Walpole and the Island, an important commercial area that connects to Bellows Falls via the Depot Street Bridge. Without the Vilas Bride, the Depot Street Bridge is the only route on and off the Island, increasing vehicle traffic through the village and putting additional strain on Island businesses.
Additionally, economic planners in Rockingham target the Island for economic revitalization. In 2019, the town spent $1.2 million in grant funding to clean up the former Robertson Paper Mill property as part of a broader plan to draw developers. Reopening the Vilas Bridge could play a major role in the Island’s revitalization.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) has included the Vilas Bridge restoration project in its 10-year plans. The letter notes that the NHDOT frequently pushes the project to the tenth year, by which time the department’s funding for projects is gone.
The closest New Hampshire came to scheduling the project was in 2010, when the NHDOT placed the bridge on its work schedule for 2015. But in 2014, state legislators passed a bill — HB 1205 — which reduced New Hampshire’s contribution portion from 93% of the funding responsibility (with Vermont covering seven percent) to a 50% split with Vermont. The project plan effectively died when the states could not agree to New Hampshire’s new funding proposal.
The NHDOT’s 2021-2030 plan will go to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu for approval Dec. 1. The legislature will consider the plan for adoption in June 2020.