In Battle to Fix Vilas Bridge, History and Passion Can't Compete with Bottom Line

Aug 3, 2017

The Vilas Bridge spans the Connecticut River with two delicate arches, but it’s seen nearly a century of wear. In some spots, where the concrete has cracked and fallen away, you can see the structure’s metal skeleton, rusting in plain air.

The bridge connects New Hampshire to an island just off downtown Bellows Falls, Vermont. New Hampshire state officials closed it to traffic in 2009, citing safety concerns. The closure was unceremonious, signified by temporary concrete barriers and orange detour signs. Now, almost a decade later, the signs are still there, weeds growing around the base.

The bridge connects New Hampshire to a small island off downtown Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Credit britta Greene/NHPR

  

From the island, you can still travel freely over to downtown Bellows Falls, but the direct connection to New Hampshire is closed. For some business owners and residents, it’s a frustrating symbol of the disconnect between this area and the centers of power where funding decisions are made.

When the bridge first opened in the early 1930s, it would have been hard to imagine the its current state. The governors of both Vermont and New Hampshire came together for the christening ceremony, celebrating the connection between the two states.

“A symbol of unity has now become something of a divisive thing,” said Richard Ewald, an architectural historian with a long history working in development and historic preservation in the area.

He joined me out at the bridge recently to talk through the structure’s history and look at its current state of repair.

“If this were in downtown Concord, do you think it would look this way?” he asked, quickly answering his own question, “No.”

The bridge's metal skeleton is visible where the concrete has cracked and fallen away.
Credit Britta Greene/NHPR

The border between New Hampshire and Vermont along Connecticut River is technically the low-water mark on the Vermont side. That means the Granite State bears the bulk of the financial cost of upkeep and repairs to its bridges across the Connecticut.

Vermont would like to see the Vilas quickly reopen to traffic. New Hampshire says the money’s simply not there.

The arguments for repairing the bridge are many. Perhaps the most ironic would be securing an active wastewater line that runs under the deck, pumping New Hampshire you-know-what to get treated in Vermont.

There’s another bridge about a half mile up the road, but the Vilas was the main artery feeding into the heart of Bellows Falls. Local business owners say their sales fell when it closed.

Architectural historian Richard Ewald stands on the bridge's deck.
Credit Britta Greene/NHPR

“Everyday you hear on the radio — oh, tax-free New Hampshire. Well, that’s great,” said Lamont Barnett, who owns a shop downtown and used to serve on the local selectboard. “If you’re able to not have an income tax, and you’re able to not have a sales tax, fine. But that doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility to maintain your infrastructure.”

The bridge also has a rich history. It sits on the site of the first-ever bridge to cross the Connecticut River. There’s ancient petroglyphs, carvings of faces, visible on the rocks below. And its architecture — open, reinforced concrete arches — is unique in this region.

“This bridge is of national historic significance,” said Ewald. “This one is too damn important to leave closed like this.

A painting of the Vilas Bridge is on display at the library in Bellows Falls, VT. The library is trying to raise funds to purchase the painting outright so it can hang permanently in this spot.
Credit Britta Greene/NHPR

Out at the bridge, shortly after Ewald drove away, I was packing up my things to do the same when up drove a woman in black pick-up truck with a letter in hand. It was addressed to the transportation departments of both states, along with other Vermont state officials, urging them to take action on the bridge.

The woman, Michele Ohayon, was driving out to take another look at the structure before putting the letter in the mail.

The truth is, on New Hampshire’s list of infrastructure projects to complete, the Vilas Bridge is not close to the top. Transportation officials say it's not for lack of awareness. The state weighs a number of factors in deciding what construction to complete and when. To date, other projects have out-competed the Vilas in that process.

The biggest challenge is simply limited funds. The transportation department completed another inspection of the bridge last month, and will likely increase its estimate for repairs beyond the current $5 million.

The state relies heavily on federal dollars for these projects, and it’s nowhere near enough to fix everything that needs to be fixed.

“That’s the problem that not only New Hampshire is facing, but states across the country,” said Bill Boynton with the state department of transportation. “The cost of maintaining and improving the transportation system is far outpacing the ability to pay for it.”

For Ohayon and others, that fact is hard to accept. She’d like to at least see the bridge open to pedestrians, to help breathe more vitality into downtown. Looking out at the deck, she began envisioning a possible future.

“You could put lamp posts here,” she said, gesturing at the railings. “And then put a donation box on that end — no one from New Hampshire can come in, unless they pay.”

That donation box is one idea. Massive federal infrastructure investment is another. Until that happens, this point of connection for Bellows Falls will remain closed.