Luskin: I-91 Bridge

Feb 6, 2015

The arch truss bridge on I-91 that’s been spanning the West River since the late 1950’s was once state-of-the-art but has become functionally obsolete. A new bridge of balanced cantilevered construction is going up in its place.

The new bridge, built with reinforced concrete laced with a corrosion inhibitor, and stainless steel rebar in the deck, is expected to take nearly four years to build - and last a hundred.

One reason construction is taking so long is because the project includes dismantling the old spans, piece by piece, all while keeping the interstate open.

Before the interstate was built, all traffic traveled through Brattleboro on the two lanes of Route Five. A friend who walked to school in those days remembers the traffic thundering through town. She thought routing trucks along the interstate a tremendous improvement.

Nowadays, Route Five has strip development at either end of downtown, where it becomes Main Street. Traffic in Brattleboro can slow to a crawl at times, and stop altogether when the train arrives. Those of us with little patience for heavy traffic bypass it all via the interstate and its three Brattleboro exits.

When the interstate closes due to an accident, weather, or construction, traffic overwhelms local streets. Brattleboro becomes seized by gridlock, the likes of which was never known before the interstate made a detour around the center of town. Traffic of this magnitude is a twenty-first century invention.

Vermont’s two interstates were built between 1956 and 1974 – and they didn’t just change the state’s landscape, they changed the state itself. Our 323 miles of interstate are part of the nation’s 40,000 miles of national defense highway. And once these roads were built, people gassed up their cars and took off.

The interstate made it possible for my family to vacation in Vermont back in the sixties – two generations ago. Today, we mostly take it for granted – until parts of it have to be replaced.

While Brattleboro’s Bridge to Nature, as it’s being called, is under construction, four lanes of impatient drivers have to squeeze into two, creating a bottleneck unusual for Vermont – and especially bad on holidays and weekends. But I like to spend the extra few minutes it takes to cross the river single file on the old southbound span reflecting on the engineering complexity and social consequences of a road system built in the last century and being renovated to last into the next.