Planned restoration of Quechee Gorge bridge has neighbors nervous

Bill Frye, of Barnet, Vt., works on installation of a fence over the Quechee Gorge that will seek to prevent suicides in Quechee, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Construction began on Monday and is expected to take around 30 days, with work taking place from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After putting up poles on both sides, the crew will begin installation of a chain link fence on the poles. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Bill Frye, of Barnet, Vt., works on installation of a fence over the Quechee Gorge that will seek to prevent suicides in Quechee, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Construction began on Monday and is expected to take around 30 days, with work taking place from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After putting up poles on both sides, the crew will begin installation of a chain link fence on the poles. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. August Frank

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-07-2023 8:07 PM

QUECHEE — Restoration work on the bridge that carries Route 4 over the Quechee Gorge is expected to begin this summer, and that makes Kipp Miller nervous.

Miller has owned Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear since 1980. He knows the bridge needs work and has seen other projects over the years.

But at a cost of $19.1 million and expected to last from this summer until July 2026, with breaks during the winter months, this one is a bit bigger.

“It’s a major concern to me,” Miller, whose gift shop is right next to the bridge, said in a phone interview. Traffic will be restricted to one lane most of the time, and that could make it harder for people to get into his parking lot, Miller said.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Thursday in Hartford Town Hall to discuss the project. A virtual option is available and a link to the meeting will be posted on the project website, at vtrans.vermont.gov/projects/quechee.

The bridge is one of the main links between the Connecticut River Valley and points west, both for tourists heading to Woodstock and Killington, and for trucks heading to Rutland and the New York Thruway.

The rehab project has been in the works for several years and includes a wide range of maintenance, such as cleaning and painting the bridge’s steel arches and replacing deteriorated beams, repairing or replacing expansion joints and partially replacing the bridge’s deck.

In addition, work will include safety improvements, such as wider sidewalks on the bridge, new sidewalks connecting to parking on both ends, and a more permanent and aesthetically pleasing suicide mitigation barrier to replace a temporary fence put up in 2018.

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The state has designated the structure a “forever bridge.” Both its history and its location make it hard to replace. It was built in 1911 and originally served as a railroad bridge, then was converted to a highway bridge in the 1930s. The 285-feet-long span was partially reconstructed in 1972 and 1989.

To ease the concerns of Miller and other business owners in Quechee, VTrans initially planned to end construction in mid-September, and stretch the project’s time frame over three and a half years.

Miller said his business does about 60% of its custom during fall foliage, when an average of 20 buses a day stop at the gorge.

But when VTrans put the project out to bid last September, only one company submitted a bid, J.B. McCarthy, an engineer and project manager in the agency’s Structures section, said in a phone interview.

Some of the companies VTrans works with said the early end to construction made the project too difficult, McCarthy said. To encourage more bids, VTrans changed the contract terms, enabling construction to continue into December.

“We tried to do it the other way, but we thought we could encourage more” contractors to submit bids, McCarthy said.

Even with fewer restrictions, the number of bids stayed the same, McCarthy said. Harrison and Burrowes Bridge Constructors, of Glenmont, N.Y., the company that bid on the project last fall, was again the lone bidder this year.

The shortage of bidders might also be attributable to the ongoing construction boom, and to the particular challenges presented by the Quechee Gorge project.

“This is really a difficult project,” McCarthy said. Access to the bridge is “a nightmare,” and closing the bridge, even for a short time, isn’t an option.

Both Miller and P.J. Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, said they were unaware of the change to the construction schedule, and thought work was still slated to end in mid-September. McCarthy said VTrans officials met with Skehan in November to tell him about the new contract terms.

Regardless, the change in the schedule leaves Miller facing the unknown. The project is going to require closing one lane and one sidewalk on the bridge for much of the project’s duration. Cleaning the steel arch will require covering it and creating negative pressure so the old lead paint can be vacuumed up, which means the collection system will sit on the bridge as traffic goes by. Then next year, one side of the bridge will be closed while the sidewalk is taken up and replaced, followed by the other side in 2025.

“If they block my parking lot so people can’t turn in, it will have a huge effect,” Miller said.

“I think it will be difficult if they don’t (halt construction) during foliage,” Skehan said.

Both said they hope the July 13 meeting provides a clearer picture. A representative from the contractor will be present, and VTrans is currently reviewing a proposed construction schedule.

“I just hope they will accommodate us where they can and do what they can to lessen the impact on us,” Miller said.

Construction activity around the bridge is likely to begin in the next few weeks, McCarthy said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.