From the Conway Daily Sun
Ossipee—September 29, 2022—Selectman Jonathan Smith said Monday that when the Whittier Covered Bridge reopens after $2 million worth of repairs, it will be for pedestrian/bike traffic only. The news left local resident Dallas Emery gobsmacked.
The town-owned bridge had been sitting on dry land off of Nudd Road, which is off Route 25, for years after being closed in 2006. When it was in service, it connected Nudd with Covered Bridge Road, off Route 16, a convenient short cut for locals. The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in the 1870s but there had been a bridge at that location since 1791. The bridge was taken out of service because it was in disrepair, selectmen said.
It is being put back in place with a combination of federal, state and local money. The project cost about $2 million, with $785,000 coming from the federal government, about $900,000 from the state and $230,000 from the town, which includes $130,000 from American Rescue Plan funds.
Last year, CPM Constructors of Freeport, Maine, was awarded the job. The bridge was moved back in place over the Bearcamp River on Sept 15, and Town Administrator Matthew Sawyer said there would be a grand reopening at some point in the future.
However, on Monday, Smith, who is also a Republican state representative up for re-election, said that after consulting with the state Department of Transportation, “it appears” that the bridge will only be open only to walkers and bikers.
“The reason for that is preservation of the bridge for the long term,” said Smith. “It was going to be limited to 3-ton vehicles and that’s going to cause all kinds of problems because trucks are going to go across more than one car, and snow is going to come off vehicles. There’s going to be all kinds of long-term issues that have come up for traffic that would arise and literally deteriorate that bridge within a period of five years.”
Put into perspective, 3 tons is 6,000 pounds. That is a little less than twice the weight of a Toyota Camry, the most popular sedan on the road.
In an email exchange Tuesday morning, Sawyer clarified that the bridge can technically handle 6 tons/1,200 pounds but the experts recommended cutting the limit in half so the bridge lasts longer.
“That (reducing the weight limit) evolved into the more recent idea and discussion to eliminate vehicle traffic altogether, so we are not back in the same situation in another decade or two,” said Sawyer, who said selectmen made the decision on pedestrian/bike use only.
He added: “It is ironic timing with the Jackson Covered bridge story in today’s edition of the Conway Daily Sun — yet another time that historic covered bridge has been struck and damaged by vehicle traffic, and an appropriately timed reminder.”
Smith’s announcement seemed to stun Emery, who frequently attends selectmen’s meetings. Emery said Conway has a functional covered bridge that can handle traffic and wondered why Ossipee can’t have the same.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Emery, adding before the bridge closed it was limited to daytime traffic. “What was the point?”
When Smith reiterated “the point” was preservation, Emery called the project “a waste of money.”
Smith added the recommendation of making the bridge pedestrian only was made by NHDOT, CPM Constructors of Freeport, Maine, and Hoyle and Tanner Engineers.
“There was always traveling across it before, so what happened?” asked Emery adding he thought the bridge was going to be strengthened.
During the meeting, Smith asked other people in the room their opinions. One resident, Frank Burke, said he thinks the bridge should be open to cars. Library Director Maria Moulton said she didn’t have an opinion. One woman who was sitting next to Burke said it was “like a bridge to nowhere.”
Emery reiterated that cars travel across Conway’s covered bridge every day. He was referring to the 1890-built Saco Covered Bridge.
“It’s the same kind of bridge,” said Emery. But Smith said the Whittier Covered Bridge is in Ossipee, not Conway. He also said it could have been less expensive to simply put a standard bridge across the river and that the covered bridge isn’t necessary for traffic to get across.
The Sun also asked Sawyer when the decision was made. “After repeated conversations with mutual concerns about the longevity of the bridge given today’s heavy/large vehicles, volume of traffic, and level of investment this rehab required, this idea surfaced recently,” said Sawyer.
“There was a level of due diligence done by Hoyle and Tanner Engineers that was just completed Sunday to determine that this strategy doesn’t break any grant agreements and is mutually beneficial for all funding sources: town, state and federal,” he said.
He added, “We are confident most if not all people will agree: The value of this bridge and subsequent investment in its rehab is historic in nature, not utilitarian. It makes absolute sense to protect that investment and honor and preserve it accordingly.”
Sawyer also said in the future perhaps picnic tables could be installed in the bridge like there is at the defunct Swift River Covered Bridge in Conway.
The Sun asked Rep. Mark McConkey (R-Freedom) to ask what DOT engineers told the town about this issue prior to the bridge being moved. McConkey is vice chair of the Public Works and Highways House committee that oversees DOT.
“I will have a conversation with DOT this week,” said McConkey.