Structural problems limit traffic on Richmond bridge

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Add this to the summer’s commuting headaches: Structural problems on a bridge along the road that links Richmond and Williston have forced state officials to reduce traffic to one lane.

Problems with the Checkered House Bridge on U.S. Route 2, which spans the Winooski River in Richmond east of the Williston line, were discovered Monday during a routine inspection. On Tuesday, the state installed a stoplight that will restrict travel over the bridge to traffic from one direction at a time.

Richard Hosking, district transportation manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the closure would reduce strain on the truss bridge by halving the weight it must bear at any one time. But he said motorists should not worry about crossing the structure, which runs 40 feet above the river.

“If it was unsafe to go over, we would have closed the bridge,” he said.

The bridge, built in 1929, has been rusting for decades. Hosking said. Some rust has been removed over the years, and it was painted in 1988.

The state has been planning to fix and widen the bridge for many years. Earlier this year, state transportation officials asked for the Richmond Selectboard’s support for a $7 million repair plan.

But Monday’s inspection revealed that the bridge was in worse shape than had been previously thought, including extensive rust and cracks in the steel support beams.

“We knew there was some corrosion underneath,” Hosking said. “We just didn’t realize how severe it was.”

The bridge problems come in the middle of a massive repaving project on Interstate 89, the only other direct east-west route between Richmond and Williston. The paving, which is expected to be finished in October, involves a 16-mile stretch of I-89 from South Burlington to Bolton.

U.S. Route 2 is as an alternate route for motorists trying to avoid the paving project.

Hoskings said traffic is usually light over the bridge and on the stretch of U.S. 2 between Williston and Richmond. So commuters may find that backups due to the bridge’s lane closure are minimal.

Still, Williston Selectboard members greeted news of the bridge’s problems with dismay Monday night.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said Hosking abruptly left a meeting with town officials earlier that day after receiving an urgent call about the bridge problems.

McGuire told the board that he was informed that the problems were structural and that the bridge crossing might be one lane “for a long period of time.”

The information eliciting a chorus of groans and sighs from the board.

“It doesn’t sound like an easy fix,” McGuire said.

The state is still deciding what to do about the bridge, said Mike Hedges, structures program manager for the Agency of Transportation.

He said the state would likely do short-term repairs and later completely renovate the bridge. The long-term fix could involve building a temporary bridge and rehabilitating the original structure by using some of its original components and replacing others.

“We understand how important the bridge is to local agriculture and businesses,” Hedges said. “We’re putting together plans to repair it.”

Observer reporter Tom Gresham contributed to this story.