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By Lisa Loomis
Business owners on Bridge Street filled the Waitsfield town offices on Monday, June 30, to express concern about the closure of Bridge Street for repairs to the covered bridge and other projects.
A tempest erupted last week when business owners created a MoveOn.org petition calling for the town to close the street at any other time than August when it was potentially scheduled. It was never definitely scheduled for August as it was (and is) dependent on the timing of grant funds being released. The day after the petition was created town administrator Valerie Capels received word from VTrans that the project would more likely result in an October closing of the street.
The project has been in the works since 2008 and it involves long overdue repairs to the covered bridge, in-stream work on the bridge abutments, streambank stabilization work as well as storm drain and drainage work on Bridge Street. Additionally, the project involves repaving Bridge Street and sidewalk work on Bridge Street.
The project and the closure of Bridge Street have been the subject of intense discussion at Town Meeting this year and in 2013. At both Town Meetings there has been extensive debate about expanding the project to include putting the power underground on Bridge Street.
At this week's meeting members of the business community discussed with the select board the scope of the project as well as the history and the timing.
"We've been talking about this project for quite a while. Everybody should not be in the dark about what's going on with it. We thought we'd have a public meeting once we got the dates for going out to bid from the state," select board chair Paul Hartshorn explained.
Paul Deflavio, a Bridge Street business owner, said that August is a critical month for Bridge Street businesses and when they heard last week that the project could take place in August they responded quickly.
"Going forward we'd ask that anything that impacts the business community, we'd ask to be kept in the loop," Deflavio said.
In response to questions about specific timing of the project now, Capels said that the timing is dependent on when federal funds are released to VTrans and when VTrans gives the town permission to put the project out to bid. The state will also dictate when and for how long the town can work in the river.
"The construction window on this project is short here and for the work in the river it is even shorter and we have no control over some aspects of it. The time to participate in the discussion is before it is in the final plan stage," select board member Chris Pierson said.
"Irene was an act of God, maybe working with the state is also an act of God," Deflavio said, adding, "We want this to have the least amount of business impact."
"We have so little control over this. It was supposed to go out to bid last year, but VTrans did not issue the permit," Pierson said.
"I think we were all shocked with the early news that it would be closed for the month of August. That initial shock generated our response," said one woman.
Capels said that she discussed the August closure dates with one business owner and, when he expressed concern, told him that she heard his concerns and would get back to him with dates, which she did the next day.
"Some of this shock could have been avoided if I'd been able to get back to him with the updated information," Capels said.
Bridge Street property owner Sam Gulisano had specific questions about how the project would proceed, wondering if both lanes of Bridge Street would be closed at the same time or whether it would be one lane at a time. Hartshorn told him that the drainage system runs diagonally across the lanes.
Board member Sal Spinosa said that despite the lanes being closed the street's sidewalks would still be open and suggested that the street could still be active even when it is shut down.
"The lifeline of Bridge Street is the pedestrian traffic," Spinosa said.
Deflavio asked if the town had any obligation to remediate the impacts of the road closure on the Bridge Street businesses.
"Is there an obligation on the part of the town to run ads or create signage?" Deflavio asked.
"We're not trying to bulldoze. We're at the mercy of the project which is bigger than us," Hartshorn said.
"We understand that these projects need to get done. We're hoping they can get done and be sensitive to our needs in terms of timing," Gulisano said.
As of press time the project is slated to go to bid today, July 3, with bids being opened in late July and the contractor mobilizing on the site around the third week of August. The contractor must order a pedestrian bridge, culverts, catch basins and oak planking, so there will be no work initially on the road. The contractor will likely begin by extending the abutments for the new sidewalk and making repairs to the bridge abutments. This work will be in the river and will not require the road to be closed. Road work would probably start in early October and asphalt plants close around Thanksgiving.
The original schedule was based upon having been out to bid by now, having the in-river work under way in August when the water level is typically lowest, and in response to prior merchant concerns that the project be completed before peak foliage season.