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Bridging the infrastructure gap

For the last few years I’ve been involved in a project here in Vermont that I now see as a microcosm of some of the infrastructure issues facing communities across North America

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Lessons learned from the emergency reconstruction of a bridge in Vermont 

The story of the Bridge Street bridge sheds some light on the urgency of our infrastructure challenge and what it could mean for our future.

The reconstruction of the Bridge Street bridge in Richmond, Vermont highlights how deferring maintenance of our infrastructure can put a significant strain on a community.

The back story: 1927 saw historic flooding across Vermont, washing out over 1,200 bridges and countless miles of roads, and even taking lives. The state spent the next decade or so reconstructing nearly 2,700 bridges, using the “Parker Truss” design for many of the longer-span bridges. The Bridge Street bridge was one such truss bridge, connecting the two halves of Richmond on either side of the Winooski River for over 80 years. 

In 2006, the town hired Stantec to inspect the bridge and recommend maintenance. Our inspection revealed some significant deterioration, and the town reduced the bridge to a single lane and a weight limit. Temporary repairs were beyond their budget, so they began looking for funding for a more permanent fix. This prompted heated, active debate at many town meetings—should we preserve the historic truss? Should we rebuild completely? How do we function without the bridge during construction? The bridge is a crucial connection for this community; it links the downtown and its businesses, schools, and emergency services to residents and to the interstate highway. So they needed a solution—quickly.

They ultimately decided to rehabilitate the bridge but were told it could take up to 10 years to get funding. Meanwhile, another inspection in 2008 revealed even more deterioration, and the bridge was shut down completely while patchwork repairs were installed to give it enough capacity to carry passenger vehicles. Trucks, school buses, and even fire trucks were forced to use a 6-mile detour.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act couldn’t have come at a better time. By accelerating our design planning process—from the usual 18 months to 3.5—the town was able to get federal funding to move the project forward immediately. The funding conditions required complete closure of the bridge to avoid the permitting needed for a temporary bridge, which meant continued use of the long detour. The community came together to work through the challenge, starting a bike ferry across the river, a ride-share network, and a concerted effort to support local businesses. The new Bridge Street bridge was completed in just under four months, reconnecting this community and strengthening its future.

While the story has a happy ending for Richmond, the lessons learned can certainly provide warnings for the hundreds of communities facing similar challenges. An astonishing amount of our bridges, roadways, water and wastewater systems, and other fundamental public structures are nearing the end of their functional lives and their replacement is becoming a necessity, not a luxury. The US interstate highway system, for example, is over 50 years old. A major failure of this network could potentially cripple our economy.

Richmond is a small town in a small state. But the story of the Bridge Street bridge sheds some light on the urgency of this infrastructure challenge and what it could mean for our future.

Authored by Tom Knight

The new Bridge Street bridge was completed in just under four months, reconnecting this community and strengthening its future.

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