Ossipee — January 4, 2007 — Selectmen plan to put an article on the town warrant in March for the preliminary work to stabilize the Whittier Covered Bridge, buying time for the town to find money for a much more extensive rehabilitation that would save the rotting structure.
Whittier Covered Bridge is the town’s oldest public structure, dating from the 19th century, and as a covered bridge is recognized by the state as an historic resource. It is currently at risk of collapse due to rot and lack of maintenance over the years.
Robert Gillette has been heading a committee to look into the needs and costs for repair of the bridge. He presented a report to selectmen Monday, Dec. 18.
“The key thing now is to keep the thing afloat or above the river,” Gillette said. If the money is raised in March, work to stabilize the bridge could begin in 2007. “Obviously you’ve got to hope it lasts through the spring,” Selectman Harry Merrow said.
Overall costs for a complete restoration of the bridge have been estimated at $763,000 and $850,000 by two different engineering and bridge construction firms. To stabilize the bridge, estimates range from $92,000 to $130,000.
Among those submitting estimates of the cost were Hoyle, Tanner and Associates of Manchester, with a total cost of $850,000 and an initial stabilization cost of $125,000 (which includes moving the bridge to solid ground and repairing there); Arnold M. Graton Associates of Holderness, with a total cost of $763,000 and a stabilizing cost of $130,000 (to stabilize the structure in place with a steel truss); and H.E. Bergeron Engineers of North Conway, with costs of stabilizing only of between $92,000 and $109,000 (stabilizing in place with a truss).
Selectman Harry Merrow said, “I really feel very strongly that the bridge should be lifted off and set on the ground there and repaired on the ground so we can repair the abutments right.” He directed Gillette to, “See what its going to cost us for a loan because we’re not going to raise that this year.” But, Merrow said, the town’s debts have been significantly paid down in recent years, and he believes the town could afford to take a loan for this work.
Gillette reported on several options for funding the project. State and federal grants are available for such work, and generally require a match of some sort from the town. There is a federal highway administration grant for saving historic bridges that would pay up to 80 percent of the cost. If the town received this grant, the town’s initial investment to stabilize the structure could count as most of its 20 percent match.
Gillette explained that this is different from the N.H. Department of Transportation bridge repair funding, which also works on an 80-20 split of the costs with the town. In order to get the DOT the bridge would have to be upgraded to carry 6-ton load limits and be re-opened to traffic. But this would increase costs to more than $1 million.
Although some see re-opening the bridge as desirable, the cost of building a new modern concrete structure would be less, and the state would only pay 80 percent of that cost, thereby considerably upping the cost to the town.
Selectman Peter Olkkola had asked if the bridge would be re-opened to traffic, but Gillette said “The assumption is that it will not be upgraded to 6-ton load DOT requires.” In addition, he said, the traffic demands would be low at that spot, due to a new bridge on Route 25 nearby.
The filing date for federal Transportation Enhancement Program grant may not be until August, Gillette said. “The federal program does not require that the use of traffic, we could even put in a park if we wanted to.”
Selectmen also told Gillette to submit an application with N.H. Land and Community Heritage Investment Program for $130,000 for the stabilization part of the program. The state funded LCHIP is anticipating a budge of $12 million to be invested in land and historical conservation projects around the state this year. But Merrow said the number of grant applications will outweigh the amount of money that is there to be distributed.
Meanwhile, the Whittier Covered Bridge is closed to all traffic. Until last year, the bridge had been open to snowmobiles and pedestrians, but it is now closed to all traffic for safety reasons. Selectmen noted in their correspondence that there was a letter from NH DOT allowing snowmobiles to use the bridge on Route 25 this year.