The Quechee Bridge Bond

Tuesday night at 6pm at the Bugbee Center (262 N Main St, White River Jct VT 05001), the Hartford Selectboard will make a CRITICAL DECISION about the Quechee Bridge.

The decision is about a bond issue for the ballot in March.

The way the language is written, if the bond issue fails, there will BE NO QUECHEE BRIDGE ANYTIME IN 2012. Why? The political process to establish a go-forward plan and funding would take at least a couple of months, delaying design work, and consequently construction work, and pushing the completion date into the summer of 2013.

It doesn’t need to be this way. I will be there arguing for alternative bond language AND NEED A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THE ROOM.

You may be asking “How do we find ourselves in this situation?”

Primarily it’s because the Town Manager and Selectboard have been anticipating a happy ending from their discussions with the federal government. Although we may still get to that, right now, it looks bleak (if you are interested in the ins and outs read this).

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has told the Town Manager they will only pay around $800,000 towards the bridge. They aren’t going to pay for any improvements: they are only going to pay what it will cost to restore the bridge to its condition on Aug 27th — warts and all.

So, subtract the money for rehabilitating the deck (the town had a $300K project planned for summer of 2012 to refurbish the roadway).
Subtract the money for cleaning and repainting the steel girders.
Forget about funds to rework the abutments to open more space in the riverbed, or to anchor the bridge to the bedrock.
No, says the FHWA, this is the bridge we’ll repair:

Quechee Bridge circa 1968 — that’s right — no Emporium Bldg; no wood cover

Want to do the job right, the way the engineers say it needs to be done to prevent future catastrophic damage to the bridge?
Want to replace the bridge since the 81 year old steel girders are good for another 15 years at best?
Want to get 80% of the $1.5 million needed to properly repair the bridge so that it has a chance of lasting another 15 years?

Forget it.

The FHWA isn’t going to contribute 80% of the $1.795,000 to properly replace the bridge with a concrete span and wooden cover, as recommended by the engineers in this report.

And is there even any point in bringing up the $2,065,000 alternative — an all-timber covered bridge?
No matter that such a bold step would make Quechee the talk of the nation when it opened.
No matter that such a bridge would guarantee 75 years of covered bridge aficionados flocking to the village.
Probably not, now. Even though it is the one money-maker idea of the bunch.

No, we get $800,000. If we want to do the complete repair job the engineers priced at $1,480,000, well, we will just have to come up with $680,000 from the Town. That’s only around 6 cents on the tax rate — $60 per 100K property value. And in around 15 years we’ll just have to come up with the $1.8 million ourselves to replace it.

As the kids say, OMG.

The Town Manager has put together language for a bond that reads:

Shall the Town of Hartford issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars (Placeholder#: $800,000), subject to reduction from the receipt of any state or federal grants-in-aid, etc., for the purpose of financing the cost of replacing the present Quechee Covered Bridge (so-called) spanning the Ottaquechee River, damaged by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene, viz; the construction of a new 87’ concrete deck and wooden housing/cover as well as the construction and/or reconstruction of associated sidewalks, the acquisition of associated land(s), easements, Rights of Way, or other appurtenances relating thereto all to be repaid by property taxation.  (By Australian Ballot).

Now, I add up 800K + 800K and get $1.6 million, which is about 200K short of the $1.8 million posited for the 87 foot concrete bridge spec’d out in the engineering report. Putting aside the confusing number, just look at the specificity of the language. When I asked Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg about it last night — “So, Hunter, what happens if the Town votes No?” — the answer was chilling: then the bridge doesn’t get fixed. Naturally, that is not what he wants, not what the members of the Selectboard want, and so there would be a need to figure out how to proceed. And we’d lose the construction season.

How many Quechee residents would decide the hassle and misstep of the town government meant it was time to add their home to the market? How many business owners in the Village would shutter their businesses?

You know, it’s only been 40 years since Simon Pearce looked like this:

Quechee 1968004.jpg

If Simon decides to throw in the towel and close Vermont’s #2 tourist attraction — and who could blame him if the town voted down the bond? — would the Parker House be far behind? In the late 1960s it was not the majestic gathering place it is today.

Quechee 1968008.jpg

There was something very smart about putting the wooden cover on the Quechee Bridge. And, while everyone has been paying lip service to a wooden cover, the fact is that this bond being defeated would likely result in a cobb-job fix with no wooden cover. I can hear it now “the town doesn’t want to spend any extra money on the Quechee Bridge.”

I suggest a different approach.

First, make up a list of everything of the town’s being repaired in the wake of Irene (a “Statement of Repairs and Improvements”). There is in fact just such a list, and I would include it if I had it, but I won’t have it until Monday. I have an older version that estimated the total costs at $6.5 million, with Hartford’s share being in the neighborhood of $1.2 million — including the Quechee Bridge, then estimated at $2.5million. I know the number is lower now.

Second, commit to paying the Town’s share out of the $1.7 million Hartford has in its undesignated funds (referred to as the ‘rainy day’ funds).

Third, ask the citizens to approve a bond to replenish the rainy day account. If they say no, all the repairs and improvements can still proceed.

With that in mind, I think we would be well within Vermont State law with the following language:

Shall the bonds of the Town of Hartford, Vermont in an amount not to exceed $2 million be issued for the purpose of replenishing the funds of town account 10-090-111-0100 (“undesignated funds” or “rainy day account”), which are being used, in conjunction with Federal and State funds, to repair the $6.5 million in unanticipated damage to the town roads, bridges, culverts and water treatment systems caused by the Irene-related floods, and to supplement such repairs with improvements designed to resist future floods, and to complete other related improvements, as detailed in the Statement of Repairs and Improvements?

I also would like to see the following advisory measure put on the ballot:

Shall the Town of Hartford replace the Quechee Covered Bridge with an all timber bridge at a cost of approximately $270,000 more than a concrete bridge, confident that such a bridge will attract additional visitors in such numbers that over the 75 year life of the bridge this extra cost will be recovered many times over to the benefit of taxpayers and businesses?

Please join me at the Selectboard meeting Tuesday evening. Make no mistake, the ballot will be set that night. The Selectboard must vote the warrant no later than Thursday. There is no time between now and then to organize to collect the 600 signatures needed to force the Selectboard to put it on the ballot. Be prepared to line up at the start of the meeting to comment — to tell the Selectboard what you think, whether that is in support of my suggestion, in support of leaving it off the ballot and taking it up once things are clearer about the federal money, or in support of going ahead as currently planned.

A critical decision is about to be made — Quechee needs to get as many citizens as possible to this meeting.

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