Liz Ryan Cole: Creating a safe crossing for walkers and bikers

Bridge closure begins April 1st. Lessons learned plus something that can still be done.

Submitted to Sidenote by Liz Ryan Cole.

NH is “restoring” the very narrow bridge between Lyme and Thetford. The 18-month long closing starts April 1. Even when the bridge is restored it will have no bike and walking access and will be just as narrow and thus dangerous as it is now.

People tried to get NH to modify their plan, but it became clear that while it would very probably have been possible to stop the flawed, imperfectly developed plan, the result of imposing a pause for reconsideration would have resulted in a much, much longer closure (up to 10 years), with no guarantee of a safer bridge in the end. Of the thousands who wrote and called and attended meetings, there was almost no energy for closing the bridge for such a long time, even if the final result would have been a better bridge.

Can we do anything more than grind our teeth and adjust our budgets and our plans as we consider each day’s crossing? I hope we can.

What lessons have we learned?

  • While NH owns the Connecticut River and thus controls the process, though the federal government pays for most of the work (90%), Vermont also plays a role. The recent letter to “Citizens of the Upper Valley” making clear that the only alternative to proceeding with the closure was a delay of up to 10 years, was signed by both Secretary Flynn from Vermont and Commissioner Cass from NH.
  • NH has a unique system of 5 selected Executive Councilors. They have the power of the purse. All NH’s Departments and Agencies must seek approval of both receipt and expenditures of state and federal funds, budgetary transfers within the department and all personal service contracts with a value of $10,000 and all contracts with a value of $10,000. The 5 councilors play a key role in funding, including the funding of bridge work. Lyme was part of District I, represented by Joseph D. Kenney, until the recent redistricting when Lyme was moved to District II, represented by Cinde Warmington.
  • NH’s Regional Planning Commissions (Lyme is included in the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission or UVLSRPC) play a very significant role in developing priorities for transportation improvements including in publicizing hearings. They receive state funding to develop RPC Regional Transportation Plans, develop priorities for transportation improvements and services and work with the NHDOT to implement those priorities. Bill Malcolm from Lyme is Vice Chair Upper Valley Regional Planning Commission.
  • Thetford is included in the Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission. The representative for the Town of Thetford is Angela McCanna.
  • Representative Masland approached Two Rivers and Liz Ryan Cole approached UVLSRPC asking them to hold a meeting. They did not respond.
  • The UVLKSRPC has a Transportation Advisory Committee. Dick Jones of Lyme is Vice Chair.
  • Local government, e.g., the Lyme Selectboard, had a least some communication with the NH DoT. The Thetford Selectboard reports only limited recent contact with the NH DoT.
  • Town Planning Boards, if they adopt a master plan, can identify potential long-term projects and strategies for addressing transportation problems. Lyme has a Master Plan. Thetford has a Master Plan.

These governmental entities and actors could change their ways. Going forward they could actively seek input from the public on their plans. And when focusing on this bridge, they could, even now, mitigate the damage caused by the closure and the dangerous crossing the NH is reconstructing.

A silver lining in all this is that Senator Sanders did respond to the requests for help made by the Ad-Hoc Bridge Committee. After reviewing the situation, his staff informed us about multiple sources for securing federal funding to build a bridge for walkers and bikers. And who can apply for these funds? Applications need to come from governmental entities and non-profits. What could the money be used for?  One suggestion is a study to examine what ways there might be for bikers and walker to get safely across the river, what these options would cost, and how such a crossing might be funded?

We are aware of two resources.

Senator Sanders’ State Director Katie Van Haste hosted a webinar on Friday, February 17 about the Congressionally Directed Spending (CDS) process. It was recorded and will be useful for any Vermonter or Vermont organization that wants to know more about what CDS is, how the process works, how projects are funded, and who should apply.

Second, Senator Sanders office provided a list of competitive grant funding resources under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

It is not clear which of our elected and appointed officials care about getting a way for bikers and walkers to cross safely. If you care, reach out to those responsible for development and implementation of transportation and make sure they will work to help obtain funds to help people cross safely. This is an ongoing problem. How will we plan for and build roads and bridges that serve us all? The deadline for the next round of federal funding is March 10.

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