Editorial: Of bridges and community

Two years after the forced closing and demolition of the Champlain Bridge, thousands of area residents have a vastly deeper appreciation of how bridges connect our lives — physically as well as socially.
As the $70 million bridge reopens this Monday, all those who have had to travel longer distances, take the ferry, quit jobs because of the extra cost, or even row across the lake to get to their destinations will heave a huge sign of relief and joy at the prospect of faster travel. Those most inconvenienced by the bridge’s demise these past two years have learned thoroughly that while the physical bridge shortens the distance between two points, the convenience is much more than that: a functioning bridge allows for the increased frequency of trips; makes it possible to live in one place (perhaps closer to family) and travel to work; connects one town to another and another – making us all closer because of it. Take it away, and the relationships are inevitably weakened.
More than keeping us connected, bridges are often crucial to our basic services. Think of the 200 bridges in Vermont — both large and small —that were washed out by Tropical Storm Irene. In Rochester and Pittsfield, Killington and Bridgewater and all up and down central and south-central Vermont, people were cut off from power, water and septic service, and transportation for four to seven days as crews worked feverishly to repair missing sections of road, washed out converts and vital bridges that had allowed residents to reach their homes and vital supplies to reach their communities.
 Bridges can also be architectural gems to admire and use. When the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury opened a year ago this fall, about 4,000 people gathered on its deck to celebrate the grand opening with bands playing, dignitaries marching in a grand parade, speeches, dancing and fireworks for a grand finale. Fireworks and a short parade were on tap for this year, too, as part of the town’s 250th celebration last Friday. The road over the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic as 300 or so gathered on the deck of the town’s newest bridge to celebrate the occasion and admire the majestic setting.
And that is the key: bridges help define who we are. By investing in a massive structure that brings us together, we have cause to celebrate, grow and coalesce into a community united and resolved to face the future with strength and optimism.
We don’t always do it well. In our lives and in our communities, as Isaac Newton said, too often “we build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Put another way, we create obstacles, not solutions. Look at Congress, and sometimes our own communities.
We are also told “never to cross a bridge until we come to it,” but then again the world has been made infinitely better by people who have taken blind leaps of faith to create bridges to points needing connections yet to be imagined by others.
The town of Middlebury took a leap two years ago and built the Cross Street Bridge without state or federal financing – one of the first such projects in the state. And it has been an overwhelming success.
Many bridges built in the aftermath of Irene were constructed in the throes of chaos and necessity through the imaginations of those contractors and excavators on the ground doing the best they could. The result, we learned last week, is that the state got the job done for hundreds of millions less than predicted. Rather than costing $620 million or more in repairs, the state is looking at a cost closer to $175 million and not more than $250 million — within the realm of what the federal government will give the state in disaster aid. It has been a “Eureka” moment for the state, which is now reviewing its labor- and time-intensive approach and looking to adopt emergency procedures when possible — at significant savings to the taxpayer, but not without its own costs to the environment and public inconvenience.
Which brings us to another quandary: which are bridges to cross and which should be burned?
If recent experience is any indication, let’s build and cross those bridges that bring us closer together and burn those that stand in the way of common cause.
Angelo S. Lynn

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