Residents blast planned 18-month closure of bridge connecting Thetford to New Hampshire

The 85-year-old bridge over the Connecticut River carrying drivers between East Thetford and Lyme, New Hampshire is expected to be closed for repairs for 18 months. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

Editor’s Note: This story by Frances Mize was first published by the Valley News on Dec. 1.

THETFORD — Upper Valley residents are facing the 18-month closure of the bridge that connects East Thetford with Lyme, New Hampshire, and tensions ran high at a meeting hosted by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation on Monday to address the refurbishment project.

But motorists and bicyclists will be left to simmer. The state of New Hampshire already has the $11 million project, funded mostly with federal dollars, under contract with a Massachusetts-based construction company.

Attendees piled into the auditorium in Anderson Hall at Thetford Academy to hear New Hampshire DOT officials walk through their decision-making process, as well as the construction time frame and traffic control plans.

The bridge over the Connecticut River is expected to be closed beginning in April or May 2023 for refurbishment until the scheduled completion date in late October 2024.

Listservs have been abuzz, an ad-hoc group has been formed, and a letter circulating between the two communities to call for halting the closure has garnered more than 500 signatures.

“There’s been a lot of information circulated about this project that’s not necessarily factual,” Jennifer Reczek, the DOT’s project manager, said at the meeting. “I look at this as more of an education opportunity. The project is in construction, the contract has been awarded.”

The Lyme-East Thetford Bridge, constructed in 1937, is the second priority in a lineup of almost 100 on New Hampshire’s “red list,” which identifies the state’s bridges most in need of repair.

The project, which will be handled by New England Infrastructure Inc., of Hudson, Massachusetts, will divert an estimated 2,200 cars a day during construction. Thetford Academy expects to be among the hardest-hit.

“Having to detour to Orford or Hanover will, at a minimum, add up to an hour to our students’ travel time, reducing their ability to meet their educational needs on campus,” Thetford Academy Board President Donna Steinberg wrote in a 2021 letter to Reczek.

Tara Pacht is an office manager at Long Wind Farm, a tomato farm that operates year-round in greenhouses and also hosts tai chi classes, and all but hugs the Thetford side of the bridge off of Route 5. She said the farm has been preparing for the closing for years.

“We definitely agree collectively at Long Wind Farm that the bridge needs to be replaced,” Pacht said in an interview.

The closing will impact their business, she said, but that’s something she and her husband, Jesse, have anticipated since attending the first public meeting hosted by DOT in 2014.

“We went to those meetings, and we see the updates when they come through. It’s not a surprise for us,” Pacht said. “It will impact the tai chi business and our retail stand, but we’re hopeful that people will continue to still find us.”

While the project is already under contract, attendees at Monday’s meeting came equipped with apprehensions, criticisms and suggestions for how they thought it could be better pursued.

Eric Tadlock, executive director of Cedar Circle, expects a stymied cash flow for his business.

“Being closed off from Lyme, we anticipate that we’re going to lose approximately $1 million worth of revenue from our Lyme customers,” Tadlock said.

Reczek said she’d been talking with town officials about the possibilities of adding some business signage “to help get the word out,” but “there’s not an ability to compensate (impacted businesses) directly.”

Due to financial constraints, as well as limitations put on the project by environmental and historical resources in the vicinity of the project (the bridge itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020), Reczek said that building a temporary bridge has been ruled out.

The bridge closing “is in keeping with our typical means of addressing traffic control on these Connecticut River crossings,” she said. “Our plan is to close the bridge, get this rehab work done as quickly as we can, and get the bridge reopened.”

Others at the meeting were concerned about how the traffic diversion might impact already high-density commuter areas like Hanover, New Hampshire, which would be the nearest river crossing to the south and add an almost 18-mile, round-trip detour.

“Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot we can do, and the Department of Transportation just said, ‘We’re doing it,’ ” Peter Kulbacki, Hanover’s Director of Public Works, said in an interview. “Right now we have to look at the morning commute. That’s about the time it will be the worst. But I don’t know that DOT ever really looked at that.”

State transportation officials didn’t reach out to Hanover about the project, Kulbacki said.

Beyond concerns about the impact on businesses, as well as school and work schedules, some people were upset that the 470-foot steel bridge was merely being refurbished, not renovated with new features.

“I’m really disappointed that in the vast bureaucratic approach to what bridge we would get, that it was all environmental and historical concerns … that the needs of the community were never addressed,” Thetford Selectboard member Li Shen said. “You’re giving us a bridge that’s an antique from the past. We need bicycle and pedestrian access as we try to stop climate change. You seem to be telling us the door is shut, it’s all decided, you can’t go back on this. But is there any way we can put a halt on this and reevaluate?”

Shen elicited a smattering of applause from the audience.

“I was crossing (the Lyme-East Thetford bridge) twice on Saturday and I had to flatten myself in that extremely fearful position that many of you know here, to not be hit by cars and trucks along the way,” Thetford resident Joanne Burns said.

To enhance safety, she suggested that the bridge could include signaling for pedestrians.

Reczek acknowledged that “the strong need” for some other connection between the two states in that area had been made clear, and that her department will work with regional planning commissions on that issue going forward.

“It may or may not be able to happen as part of this project, but the sooner that gets planned the sooner we can potentially come up with a solution,” Reczek said.

She closed the meeting by addressing the calls that the project be punted down the road, emphasizing that the federal money that makes up the bulk of the budget has an expiration date.

“We have spent millions of dollars that would need to be paid back to (the Federal Highway Administration). So what happens if we don’t do this project? The best case would be construction in 2033,” Reczek said. “And there’s a very good risk that this bridge could be closed for years before we’d be able to find the funding to do something different.”

Backing out of a contract with “no cause” would be “unprecedented,” Reczek said. It would almost guarantee that the bridge be closed for longer than currently slated, she added.

“I know this isn’t the answer that people are going to want to hear, but we have to make difficult decisions with the transportation funding we have,” Reczek said.

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