Bats delay $4m bridge rebuild

MIDDLEBURY — Long-anticipated renovations to the historic Pulp Mill Bridge on Seymour Street in Middlebury could be further delayed — or possibly expedited — by the discovery of bats that have decided to take up residency in the rafters of the covered span.
Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) Project Manager Mark Sargent noted bats have been seen flying out of both ends of the 190-year-old, double-lane wooden span that links Middlebury with Weybridge across the Otter Creek at Seymour Street. The bridge — which is posted for a limit of one vehicle per lane at a time — has long been on the docket for a major, $4 million rebuild. That rebuild had been slated to begin next spring and last for around a year. But that timetable is now in flux due to the discovery of the bats, since federal funding for the repairs comes with a number of conditions — including that the project not disrupt a bat habitat.
It’s not yet known whether the flying mammals in question include endangered Indiana bats. But bats in general — particularly in the Northeast — are diminishing in numbers due to the “white nose syndrome,” the loss of habitat and other conditions. While they can be unwanted inhabitants of attics, bats are credited for controlling the insect population.
Sargent explained federal regulations would preclude work from being done on a bat-inhabited bridge from April to October — the prime roosting period.
But there is a chance VTrans can get a jump on the bats next year.
“I’m trying to get to a point where we might be able to advance it a little,” Sargent said. If VTrans is able to secure all the needed state and federal permits, award the contract and launch work before next April, it would keep the project on schedule and avert the shutdown during bat roosting season. If reconstruction efforts begin before the bats roost, they can continue through the summer, Sargent said.
Officials would take pains not to leave the bats out in the cold, however.
State biologists are considering installing some bat houses in the vicinity of the bridge to give the tiny, winged mammals some refuge while their regular “home” is being renovated.
“The (bat house) areas have to be configured just right, with sunshine,” Sargent said.
But if work doesn’t begin before next April, the Pulp Mill Bridge repairs will languish for at least an additional seven months.
A delay would be frustrating, but perhaps not a disaster, according to Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. Middlebury on Oct. 30 will fete the opening of the new Cross Street Bridge, which will link Main Street with Court Street across the Otter Creek at Cross Street.
“In some ways, a (delay) might be good, because it allows the Cross Street Bridge to settle in as part of the transportation mix,” Finger said.
There will be no temporary bridge next to the Pulp Mill Bridge during construction. Having the new Cross Street Bridge in service will therefore partially compensate for the temporary loss of the Pulp Mill Bridge — which remains safe in spite of the need for renovations, according to Finger.
“People shouldn’t be concerned about using it,” Finger said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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