Businesses in Charlestown and Springfield, Vt., seek alternative to bridge closure

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-16-2024 7:00 PM

CHARLESTOWN — At a meeting Tuesday morning, Charlestown and Springfield, Vt., business owners and public officials said the planned 34-week closure to repair the Cheshire Bridge linking the two communities will “kill” the area economy.

About 50 people attended the meeting and discussed strategies to get the Legislature to amend its 10-year transportation plan and delay the bridge repairs for two years while an alternative to closing it is found. Presently, the project is scheduled to be bid this summer with work beginning in April 2025.

The Senate Transportation Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on Tuesday on amendments to the 10-year transportation plan and will be discussing the requested delay, Periklis Karoutas, a lobbyist with Legislative Solutions in Concord, hired through the Charlestown Economic Development Association, or CEDA, said.

“Hopefully we will prevail upon the (Senate Transportation) Committee to make a decision to delay the project and find a long-term solution,” Karoutas said.

A delay would provide a year or more to secure money in the state budget for a temporary bridge, which is estimated to cost $6 million, Karoutas said. The Senate Transportation Committee should vote on the amendment within a couple of weeks, he said.

Karoutas urged attendees to contact their legislators through phone calls, emails and letters and put pressure on them to come up with an alternative plan that will not adversely impact local businesses and residents.

“Make them understand there are jobs at stake and there are real safety and public health concerns,” Karoutas said. “They have to hear from those affected. It goes a long way.”

Higher costs to employees and business operations, loss of customers and possible loss of employees were some of the concerns expressed by those at Tuesday’s meeting. Whelen Engineering in Charlestown has 285 employees who live in Vermont, Brian Boardman, the company’s senior vice president of operations, said. He was not sure how many use the bridge to get to work, but said that in a one month period of work, or 22 days, there could be up to 213,000 additional miles and 3,700 hours of added commuting time.

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“That is a lot of added expense for our employees,” Boardman said.

The closest Connecticut River crossing to Charlestown is about 10 miles to the north, between Claremont and Ascutney, or south, between Walpole, N.H., and Bellows Falls, Vt. Beaudry Enterprise Inc., a trucking firm, uses the bridge twice a day, six days a week to fuel up its fleet of 25 trucks, said Bob Beaudry. He told Karoutas the bridge closure would add well over an hour to the trip and raise the company’s costs.

Sumner Restaurant on Main Street in Charlestown lost 35% of its business during COVID and close to 30% of its employees come from Vermont, Carol Clark, the restaurant’s owner, said. She worried that closing the bridge could jeopardize her business in the long term.

The bridge closure also could have an affect on public safety, said Dale Girard, of Golden Cross Ambulance in Claremont. The company makes 500 to 600 transports a year to Springfield Hospital from Charlestown and closing the bridge would mean transporting patients to Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont, nearly twice the distance.

“It will really affect people,” Girard said.

The prospect of the bridge closing is made more troublesome for the two towns because of other construction projects that will be happening at the same time, Matt Blanc, owner of Blanc and Bailey Construction and president of CEDA, said. These include the current work to replace the Route 12 bridge over the Sugar River in Claremont, planned reconstruction of the Interstate 91 bridge over Route 11 in Springfield, as well as the Exit 7 ramps, and the reconstruction of the Route 12 bridge over the railroad tracks just south of downtown Charlestown, which is beginning this month.

Blanc said Charlestown residents and businesses would be hit with additional hardships with planned permanent repairs to a 600-foot section of Route 12 south of town that was closed for nearly a year after heavy rains in July 2021 closed the road for about 11 months. “All of this combined could turn Charlestown into an island and certainly create a hardship for many folks,” Blanc said.

State Rep. Walter Spilsbury, R-Charlestown, said creating a map depicting all the projects slated to be done on roads into Charlestown will help persuade lawmakers how closing the bridge over the Connecticut River “will absolutely kill this town.”

Albert St. Pierre, of St. Pierre, a Charlestown-based sand and gravel supplier, urged the attendees of Tuesday’s meeting to contribute to CEDA for the lobbying effort and make their voices heard in Concord. “We need all of you to support us with your help so we can keep this thing going and keep this bridge open,” St. Pierre said.

David Scott, design chief for the project, said on Tuesday that he is scheduled to appear before the Charlestown Selectboard on May 15 to present changes to the traffic control plan. Scott said he could not speak about the changes at this time but did say they “would lessen the impact” to those who use the bridge.

Earlier this year, Scott said the bridge repairs would include replacing rusted sections underneath the span and then repainting the entire bridge.

The 500-foot, two-lane bridge was constructed in 1930. The deck was replaced in 2015 and other repairs have been done throughout its nearly 100-year history.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.