The bridge that spans the Connecticut River between East Thetford and Lyme is long overdue for a major overhaul, but what is becoming increasingly obvious is that its reconstruction will cause great disruption and hardship on both sides of the river.How will closing the Thetford/Lyme Bridge affect you? Even if you don’t cross the bridge yourself, it will be a big deal. Here are some of the financial consequences.
- Each additional trip will cost on average $8 per one way detour (at the Federal Government reimbursement rate for cars). Who is willing to spend an extra $16 a day or $80 a week? And is it fair for NH and the Federal government to put the burden of 600 crossings (or almost $10,000 per person and $20 MILLION Dollars the community will have to spend simply to commute) on individuals
- Crossroads Academy and Thetford Academy will lose tuition dollars, which may affect your taxes.
- Local businesses may lose employees who cross the river now. Local business may lose income, and together with losing employees may cause them to limit their services or close entirely. That may affect your taxes too.
- There are of course also environmental costs to all this extra driving and social costs for those who cross the river to take care of grandchildren or go to church or simply to visit friends.
Since earliest times the river has belonged to New Hampshire, and New Hampshire is responsible maintaining all the bridges. Vermont is responsible for paying for the small fraction of each bridge that lies within Vermont. Hence the scope of work, the engineering, budget and the logistics around bridges are almost entirely in the hands of the State of New Hampshire or more specifically New Hampshire Agency of Transportation, NH AOT. Happily for NH the Federal Government is footing almost all the bill. The Federal Highway Administration is funding $9.56 million of the $11 million project, and that money has been approved to support community survival and prosperity writ large. The social and economic prosperity of the whole community is of paramount importance in spending this money.
NH AOT has said emphatically there will be no temporary bridge. They make it sound as if nothing can be done - the project is already permitted and has been put out to bid. Period. Including a temporary bridge could require:
- Reapplying for all environmental permits to each state’s environmental permit and enforcement bodies and probably to the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers as the latter has jurisdiction over all navigable water,
- Obtaining (paying for) easements on both sides of the river to locate accesses to the temporary bridge, Constructing footings and concrete abutments on each bank,
- Locating a pier mid-point in the river to support each temporary span because no temporary bridge can be done in a single span,
- Installing two temporary Bailey bridges. (Both VT and NH maintain an inventory of them),
- Installing traffic lights,
- Paving the ramps and installing guard rails,
- Relocating utility poles (possibly on each side of the river).
The DOT has not shared if in fact they even calculated these costs, saying only this is a low traffic bridge.
Should the reconstruction be postponed?
From resident townspeople’s perspective, there are numerous reasons why the project should be halted until a temporary bridge can be worked into the budget. These are emblematic of what makes a local community thrive and prosper and include robust education, strong local businesses and thriving farms.
- Pre-K – 12 Education. During the school year and at other times, TA and Crossroad Academy students routinely travel to from home to school and back again. There are Lyme kids at TA and Thetford kids at Crossroads. The learning environment for this age group is highly dependent on the cohort of peers that students interact with. If we learned anything at all watching the pandemic play out it is that the social interactions of students deeply affect their education.Some parents may determine that traveling longer distances will be too much trouble, their kids will have to switch schools and student cohorts will be disrupted.
- Local businesses – Wings, Watson Automotive, Huggets, Cedar Circle Farm and multiple other businesses will lose customers and suffer economic losses. Their parking lots are often filled with as many NH license plates as those from VT. Some customers will simply give up and find alternatives that don’t require crossing the river. We are witnessing general store closings and don’t want to see any more. Our East Thetford establishments are struggling. They deserve our full support. During this period of high inflation and a looming recession, one and a half years (or possibly longer) is a long time to have business disrupted.
- Strong local farms – Cedar Circle Farm is provides high quality organic produce and a fair portion of their business comes from directly across the river. Cedar Circle hires young people that thrive on place based face to face employment. Employment is dependent on sales which in turn is dependent on customer base.
The Covid pandemic and its associated economic and social disruption have made life difficult for all age groups. Vibrant communities are founded on strong local businesses, thriving farms and vibrant public education. Small retailers, whether traditional small grocery stores or organic farms are integral to small town survival. Education from pre-K to grade 12 thrives when it is essentially place based and cohort based. Disruption of any of these equals displacement and loss. If we learned anything during the pandemic lock downs it’s that disruption causes hardships among students, faculty, staff and administrators alike, and each disruption causes its own level of economic hardship.
Now’s not the time to make things more difficult, particularly for small important businesses that provide vitality to our community. Federal Covid stimulus money (stimulus checks, Build Back Better, etc.) has been neatly categorized as required, and each pot of money has its own set of restrictions and rules. Transportation funds go to bridges and highways, not to support local businesses. Adding a temporary bridge to the project will add cost to the project, but the overarching thrust of this Federal Assistance has been to support community survival and prosperity writ large. Social and economic prosperity of the whole community is of paramount importance. We should collectively recognize and strive for that. It should be our mission. The existing standard decision making pyramid is such that by the time engineering and cost/benefit decisions have been made, additional public input, particularly if it’s late in the game makes it harder to affect the outcome. But the stark truth of this matter is that the decision to go forward with a rehabilitated bridge without temporary access across the river is glaringly wrong.
Changing the outcome as defined by the bridge rehabilitation bid documents will require intervention from higher up - perhaps by the Congressional Delegations of both Vermont and New Hampshire and perhaps by the US Department of Transportation.
If we consider that the spirit of pandemic relief funds has been to build integrated economic support for community survival… then this project is just the place to put that into practice. And think of the silver lining – if the project is reconsidered in a rapid and efficient manner, we might even be able to figure out how to make it serve not only cars, but pedestrians and bicyclists.
I reached out to Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission over a year ago requesting that they and Upper Valley Lake Sunapee RPC, their NH counterpart, jointly convene a public hearing to hear this matter out, but to no avail.