Residents seek warning structures for Pulp Mill Bridge

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents Irene and Ed Barna are longtime fans of the state’s historic covered bridges. Irene just finished a stint as secretary of the Vermont Covered Bridge Society, dedicated to the preservation of these revered jewels in Vermont’s transportation system.
The Barnas are now worried about potential, future damage to a prominent span in their own backyard: The covered Pulp Mill Bridge that spans the Otter Creek on Seymour Street and links Middlebury with Weybridge. Both communities, along with state and federal transportation authorities, have together spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past three decades fortifying and repairing the circa-1852 Pulp Mill Bridge.
Fueling the Barnas’ anxiety is the prospect of the bridge seeing a lot more traffic while the Main Street and Merchants Row rail spans are closed for a major construction project during the summer of 2020. While the newer Cross Street Bridge will handle much of the detoured traffic during that summer, officials acknowledge the Pulp Mill span is also likely to see a lot more use.
And those potential users, Irene Barna fears, might include some vehicles too large to enter the bridge without damaging its wooden frame. She noted three of the state’s historic covered bridges have sustained significant damage from oversized vehicles just within the past three months. The casualties include the Miller’s Run span in Lyndonville, the Woodstock covered bridge, and the Sanderson covered bridge in Brandon (see Jan. 17 Addison Independent).
“‘But my GPS told me to go that way,’ is damaging countless covered bridges in the U.S.A.,” Barna said, referring to a common refrain from those who ignore or don’t pay attention to size-limit signs and end up slamming their large vehicles into covered bridge openings that are too small to accommodate them.
“People are believing the GPS as if it were the Bible.”
Barna is asking town officials to put up damage-prevention structures at each end of the Pulp Mill Bridge in an effort to avert future crashes. These structures can include tapered guardrails at both mouths of the bridge to ensure only cars and small trucks get in. They can also include a horizontal bar, mounted on two posts, placed several feet ahead of the bridge entrance-exit to give a truck driver tangible resistance prior to the vehicle reaching the span.
“We can’t afford to have the Pulp Mill Bridge out of commission,” she said of its particular importance during 2020.
Barna acknowledged the crash-prevention structures “aren’t pretty, but neither is a damaged covered bridge.”
She offered her suggestion — along with photos of covered bridge protection structures used in other states — to the Middlebury selectboard on May 28. Board Chairman Brian Carpenter thanked Barna for her feedback and said the panel will study the issue more carefully as next summer approaches.
Jim Gish is Middlebury’s Community Liaison for the downtown rail bridges replacement project.
“The state is not directing vehicle traffic to Seymour Street/Pulp Mill Bridge, but I think it’s clear that many local motorists driving cross town will take Pulp Mill Bridge to avoid Cross Street and both the Vermont Agency of Transportation project team and the selectboard are aware of the concern,” he said. “How we’ll protect the bridge is still to be determined.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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