This article first appeared in the January 26th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Eric Francis
QUECHEE – Because of limitations on what the Federal Highway Administration will actually pay for, voters at the annual Hartford town meeting will be asked to authorize a bond for extensive renovations to the flood-damaged Quechee Covered Bridge as part of a plan to have it back open to traffic as early as this coming December.
The decisions about what is worth spending to repair the bridge, which spans the Ottauquechee River from the base of Waterman Hill over to the Simon Pearce glassblowing mill, have been complicated by a number of factors, not least of which is that the 81-year-old steel girders underneath it that survived the havoc wrought by Tropical Storm Irene will nonetheless reach the end of their service life about 15 years hence.
It seemed obvious to town officials and Quechee residents who packed Tuesday night’s Hartford selectman’s meeting that the best course of action would be to carry out the complete package of needed renovations right now since nature has cleared the river channel right down to the bedrock and exposed all the major pieces of the bridge structure to the elements. However, Federal Highway Administration regulations will only allow their federal funds to be spent on repairs that put the bridge back to the condition it was in on the day before the storm hit.
As an example of the kinds of discussions he’s been having about the project, Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg noted that the town had been planning to repaint the beams under the bridge prior to the hurricane and because of that the FHA will not pay for any painting as part of the renovation project.
“They are really serious about putting the bridge back to the way it was before, even the blemishes,” Rieseberg said.
The FHA’s total cost estimate for the bare bones restoration of the Quechee Covered Bridge (which is not really a traditional wooden bridge but rather a conventional concrete and steel highway bridge with a decorative wooden cover) is $849,717 which would make Hartford’s 20 percent share of the project cost $169,942.
Although the FHA regulations set the cap at what they will pay at $679,775, their rules do allow Hartford to go above and beyond that base amount and add whatever the town wants to the project, provided the town comes up with all the additional money.
Rieseberg and members of the selectboard said that if the town went along with the FHA’s logic and just did the minimum to get by the town would be faced with the cost of a complete bridge replacement in 15 years and in the meantime would have to “live with a bridge that is substandard.”
The cost of building a new longer and higher bridge this year with all of the long-term adjustments that are called for in terms of both longevity and avoidance of future flooding hazards, would cost $1.8 million in today’s dollars, less the nearly $678,000 in funds the FHA is willing to contribute.
Rieseberg said waiting until absolutely necessary to do the major rebuild would place the entire cost of doing so on the town’s tab which would, “probably cost two to two-and-a-half times as much in 15 years which would be about $3.5 to $4 million.” He suggested voters should think of this year’s bond authorization request as a way of immediately getting the better bridge they are going to have to buy in 15 year’s time anyway at a savings of nearly 40 percent off the current price and a “massive discount” off what it will likely cost around the year 2027.
The actual amount of the bond that will be put before Hartford voter’s for their share of the expanded project will be $1,135,225. “That’s the balance for a concrete and steel modernization,” Rieseberg said, noting that the balance of the federal funds in that equation, “is kind of like an insurance settlement. (They will be saying) ‘Here’s the check. Don’t call us’.”
The bond would make for an increase of three-quarters of a cent on the town’s tax base and if approved it would allow designs to be solicited by late April or May and construction to be carried out during the summer.
During Tuesday night’s meeting the selectmen briefly floated another option, that of building an authentic wooden covered bridge in place of the faux one that was damaged; however, Rieseberg noted, “A wooden bridge would take a little longer to design and longer to construct.”
Although the total construction cost would only be about $300,000 more, that would have to come on top of the town picking up all of the funding, including the portion now being covered by the feds, so the overall cost to the town would be significantly higher. Board members also said that on-going maintenance costs over the lifetime of the bridge would probably be hundreds of thousands of dollars more as well.
Efforts to build more authentic wooden covered bridges around Vermont have been brought up from time to time but despite some inherent advantages, like the exceptionally long life of major support members, there are standing drawbacks including fire hazards and the lack of a modern supply of large hardwood timbers from trees like Larch that were used back in the day to build much of the state’s surviving collection of antique bridges.
Quechee resident F.X. Flinn told the gathering that building a real wooden bridge, “Could have a profoundly dramatic impact on Quechee, especially in terms of tourism. It would be a real statement about Vermont coming back from the flood,” Flinn said before quickly adding, “But, on the other hand, I’d like to have the bridge back by Christmas so I’d vote for the concrete bridge with a wood cover.”
David Barrell of Quechee and others took turns at the microphone agreeing with that assessment. “Time is absolutely of the essence when you consider the economic impact on businesses and on people. My vote would be stay away from the more exotic wood structure,” Barrell said.
Quechee resident Jim Dow put it even more succinctly.
“I don’t think people in Hartford have to pay for manufactured quaintness,” Dow said, urging the selectmen to, “Build the bridge and worry about the poets later.”