Lasting repairs a long way off for Checkered House Bridge

Structure essential for local farms, businesses

By Mal Boright

There is likely a better chance for a free lunch than for a quick and permanent fix to the Checkered House Bridge on U.S. Route 2 in Richmond.

Late last month two-way traffic on the structure, built in 1929 in the aftermath of the devastating 1927 flood, was reduced to one-way because structural defects were found.

A somewhat quick fix to those problems is in the works, said Roger Whitcomb, project manager for the state Agency of Transportation. He said bids were being taken for “patchwork repairs” to the outside edges of the bridge that will allow for the resumption of two-lane traffic.

“We don’t want to leave it for just one-way traffic,” Whitcomb said.

As for the timetable for a new bridge at the site, Whitcomb was much more circumspect. He said an earlier estimate that a new and wider span could be under construction by 2009 was “optimistic.”

“I would not doubt that a bit,” said Richmond farmer David Conant, who was at the February meeting and who has been frustrated for years by the lack of progress in replacing the aging truss bridge.

In the early ‘90s the state was ready to replace the bridge only to have local opposition — some citing the historic nature of the bridge — emerge, causing the proposal to be shelved.

Even worse than the prospect of waiting years for a new bridge is the possibility that the state may have to close the span entirely. If the bridge deteriorates to the point that the steel deck needs replacement, Whitcomb said, “the bridge could be closed for a few months. Nobody wants to do that, but we may be forced to.”

The potential closure worries Ken Paquette of Paquette Full of Posies, a Williston nursery located on Route 2 just west of the bridge. Paquette and his wife, Veronica, both said that the one-way, stop-and-go traffic on the bridge has had little noticeable effect on their business. But a closure might.

“If this bridge should be closed, that would be bad,” he said. “The bridge is very important to us.”

“I can’t foresee them closing the bridge,” said Conant who farms both sides of the Winooski River and needs to get equipment, feed and manure across the span. “They know it can’t be closed.”

The Conant farm is one of four or five that depend on the bridge for access to fields and produce.

Chuck Farr, owner of Johnnie Brook Farm in Richmond, said any future closing “would be a big deal for us. We would then have to go to the North Williston Road.”

Farr said about one-fourth of his operation is served by the Checkered House Bridge and another fourth is served by the truss bridge in downtown Richmond, which, is about the same age as the Route 2 bridge and of some concern to Richmond town officials.

Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, said he could not imagine the Checkered House Bridge being closed without a temporary bridge in its place.

“Any closure would be very tough for Williston,” McCullough said. He pointed out that businesses and residents east of Oak Hill Road and North Williston Road would then likely use Route 2A to reach Interstate 89. He said that exit is “already overburdened.”

Rep. Denise Barnard, D-Richmond, said she is hopeful that plans for the replacement bridge will “hopefully get bumped up on the list.”

She said a $5,196 ticket issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles to a contractor hauling a load of manure across the bridge for Conant put the Checkered House Bridge and other bridges on the public awareness radar. The truck weighed 79,000 pounds, much more than the 60,000 pounds permitted for agricultural use.

According to Barnard, the ticket opened up “a can of worms” for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. She noted that the department, while posting the load limits at the bridge itself, had failed to post the rule with the Richmond town clerk’s office and on the Internet as required by law.

“That ticket has been postponed indefinitely,” Barnard said with a smile. Conant confirmed that the ticket is now on hold.

“We need to bite the bullet, step forward and get our road and bridges repaired,” said Barnard. “In every town around the state there are bridges like this where farmers are unable to go across.”

Conant said a meeting in Montpelier last Friday was called to look into the issue.

“It was not just about this bridge but all of them around the state,” he said. “We met with the Department of Motor Vehicles and tried to give their people a better understanding of agriculture equipment and how farmers use roads and bridges.”

He said a second meeting is being set up for the near future.