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Bristol’s Route 116 bridge officially opens

BRISTOL — It was decades in the making, but Bristol finally has a new bridge on Route 116.
A cadre of local officials and legislators joined state Transportation Secretary Brian Searles Monday afternoon for a ribbon cutting ceremony at the center of the new span, which crosses the New Haven River on Route 116 between River and Carlstrom roads.
Searles said he understood the frustration that Bristol residents and others who regularly used the Route 116 over the length of the project, and he recounted all the snags that project had to overcome in the last three decades.
“The bridge has had every kind of issue a bridge could have, from environmental issues to historic issues to soil issues to design changes,” Searles said. “What we have now will serve the 3,000 vehicles a day that use this crossing.”
Searles was joined by a slate of Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Claire Ayer of Addison; and Reps. Mike Fisher of Lincoln, Diane Lanpher of Vergennes and David Sharpe of Bristol. Bristol Selectman Joel Bouvier and Town Administrator Therese Kirby were also on hand.
Sharpe said he was so dismayed by the glacial progress of the project that he joked that he hoped Tropical Storm Irene would have washed the old bridge out, leaving the state with no choice but to replace it.
Fisher said he likes to help publicize projects like this to constituents, who often wonder how their tax dollars are spent by Montpelier.
“I just want to recognize what an excellent use of tax dollars this is,” he said.
To complete the 368-foot bridge, which spans the New Haven River and a parallel stream, crews used 1,700 cubic yards of cement and 890,000 pounds of steel.
Gone now are the stop lights at either end of the old bridge that since at least the early part of the last decade restricted traffic on the old bridge to one lane. The new bridge is longer than the old one and open to two-way traffic now, although work will continue in the area into the spring to remove the temporary bridge and complete other site work.
The secretary said that the Route 116 bridge project was part of a $140 million investment by the state that aims to cut in half the number of structurally deficient bridges in Vermont. Searles was quick to clarify that this designation doesn’t mean that bridges are unsafe, but rather need significant improvement.
According to figures provided by the governor’s office, the number of structurally deficient bridges in Vermont increased significantly from 2008 to 2013. An influx of state funding has brought that number down.
Selectman Bouvier, who recalled the origins of the project in the 1980s, said the new bridge was long overdue, but nonetheless welcomed by Bristol.
“It’s a nice bridge and we’re going to be very well served for the next 50 to 100 years,” Bouvier said.
Bristol, a town of just 3,900 residents, has seen the completion of two bridges in the last two months. In September townspeople lauded the opening of the new span on South Street; while it was down for more than a year residents who lived south of the bridge were isolated from the downtown area.
FIGHTING FOR FUNDING
After the hasty ceremony, during which construction workers blocked traffic on the bridge so officials could cut a green ribbon, Searles explained that this project is just one of many his agency is undertaking to improve the state’s aging infrastructure.
“Our biggest problem right now is getting our road surfaces out of the ‘very poor’ category,” Searles said. “We’re down under 20 percent now, but having one-fifth of your roads in very poor condition is not a good place to be.”
In a report released this month, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Vermont’s infrastructure a grade of “C-.” Searles said the state is still repairing roads and bridges damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, especially in the southern counties.
“In southern Vermont, we’re putting millions of dollars in certain corridors,” he said.
One of the most daunting challenges the Agency of Transportation faces, Searles said, is a lack of funding, which forces officials to rank projects in order of priority.
“We’ve had problems in terms of funding, particularly at the federal level,” Searles said. “We depend heavily on federal funds.”
Searles conceded that upkeep on roads and bridges will always be expensive, given Vermont’s climate and geography.
“Maintaining infrastructure in this kind of climate is tough, with the freeze-thaw cycles and the fact that most roads are beside a river or mountain or both,” he said.
Searles said the Legislature’s decision to raise the tax on gasoline to fund infrastructure project has made his job a little easier, but said a VTrans study found that the agency would need an additional $240 million to address all infrastructure needs.
“The gas tax increase really helped us, but we’ve got to find an effective way to pay for this,” Searles said.
Fisher said it’s a challenge to steer funding for local infrastructure projects in the Legislature because each member has a project in need in his or her district. In his case, Fisher hopes the state will pay to refurbish Route 17 through the Appalachian Gap, which he says is a big tourist draw.
“It’s a destination road, and people travel from all across the country,” he said. “It’s in very bad shape.”
Fisher said in the wake of Irene, legislators have been more attuned to the state’s transportation needs, and are committed to making long-term repairs as opposed to cheaper, cosmetic fixes like resurfacing roads.
“I hear a lot more about not just putting skim coats on top, but doing the real work that needs to be done,” Fisher said. “You want to keep ahead of projects before they get bad.”

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