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VTrans: Vergennes on the hook to fix Otter Creek bridge

VERGENNES — Following a July inspection of the city-owned bridge over Otter Creek, the Agency of Transportation informed Vergennes officials the span’s underpinnings need work, and it’s the city’s responsibility to arrange and pay for it.

The word came in a July 26 letter that also warned the city could face legal problems if something goes wrong on the bridge:

“Even though a bridge is recommended for repair due to deterioration, impact damage, or scour by the state, the decision to properly respond to the recommendations is the responsibility of municipal officials. However, it is in the best interest of the municipality to address these recommendations. A failure to address potential bridge hazards may result in tort liability claims.”

The report adds, “Failure to comply with the recommendations may compromise public safety, result in additional damage, and/or substantially reduce the service life of the structure.”

City Manager Ron Redmond said he and Public Works Director Jim Larrow were planning to meet with Parent Construction this week to get a cost estimate for repairs.

But Redmond said city officials don’t know how severe the bridge’s problems are, especially in light of a separate VTrans email that stated “shims” could be an interim solution to the issues.

Redmond added as of Monday the city hadn’t had any further clarification on how quickly it should act.

“The recommendation of applying shims to the bridge is an interesting solution,” he said. “And we’re still asking the state to tell us, is this (to be) done in two days, two weeks, two months, done in two years? Give us an idea. No response yet there. So in the meantime, we’re going to look at what is the cost, and we’ll report back to the council.”

Councilors at their Aug. 8 meeting at least talked about the worst-case solution, closing the bridge, given that VTrans pointed out the city faced possible legal liability without a fix.

“It was discussed,” Redmond said. “Not in any formal way, but informally discussed, would it make sense to divert traffic?”

Specifically, inspectors cited problems with three upstream (south-facing) faces of the piers of what they describe as a “five-span steel-beam bridge.”

“The upstream ends of piers 2, 3, and 4 are in poor condition. The upstream end of the pier 2 cap is cracked/segmented through causing the undermining of the upstream fascia beam bearing of span 2,” the letter states.

“Upstream ends of the joints have continued spalling (note: flaking or pitting) in the surrounding deck and areas of the sidewalk, with some small full depth holes that have developed in the sidewalk.

“The joint troughs failed many years ago and continue to allow for debris and saturation to accelerate the deterioration of elements below.

“Based on these findings it is recommended that piers 2, 3, and 4 have necessary concrete repairs made to the upstream ends to ensure the integrity of the fascia beams/bearings.

“Due to the constant saturation of elements below, spalling in the surrounding upstream areas of the joints, and failed troughs, a project to replace the joints should be considered, with necessary repairs made to the surrounding areas of the deck and sidewalk.”

Redmond speculated, however, if VTrans was talking shims, maybe the bridge was not in crisis.

“If that is what the state is telling us, I’m trying to understand the sense of urgency, but that doesn’t seem like a high sense of urgency if engineers are recommending shims,” he said.

If it’s not a crisis, that could help the city buy time to seek funding to help pay to fix what is a key element of what VTrans itself has declared the major truck route in western Vermont. Redmond said that time might allow Vergennes to earn state support.

“We’re on the list for state funding, but we’re not high on the list,” he said.

Redmond hopes VTrans will eventually help fund the project, even if the city does own the bridge.

But he does understand the issue.

“VTrans does try to get people to pay for things, rightfully so,” he said.

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