Williamsville hopes to preserve covered bridge

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(Host) At a time when billions of federal stimulus dollars are being spent on transportation, a small southern Vermont village is sticking with its covered bridge.

But residents of Williamsville got a surprise recently. They discovered their covered bridge listed as free for the taking in the classified section of The Burlington Free Press.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) Since at least 1870 this covered bridge has spanned the Rock River between the villages of Williamsville and South Newfane. It survived the flood of 1927 and the ’38 Hurricane.

But the weight of modern traffic has damaged it beyond repair. The bridge is on a well-known short cut from Route 30 in Newfane to Mount Snow and Routes 9 and 100.

(Keese) The bridge has always been just one lane wide. Signs at both ends call for motorists to stop and check for vehicles coming from the other direction. The structure shakes mightily when an SUV passes through. A hand-scrawled poster warns of loose planks. The bridge is posted for five miles an hour.

A neighbor who doesn’t want her name used, says the weight and speed limits are often ignored.

(Neighbor) "People don’t want to slow down. They’re not worried about our little village. They just want to get from A to b as fast as they can.”

(Keese) The deteriorating bridge has sparked plenty of debate over the last decade, with some residents arguing that a modern, two-lane concrete bridge would be more practical and safer.

But many people are glad the bridge forces motorists to slow to a stop as they enter the village. In recent years Williamsville has lost its general store and church. But villagers still cross the road to gather at the post office, community hall and a much-loved swimming hole on an old mill. Resident Anne Landenberger says the bridge acts as a natural speed bump.

(Landenberger) "If  we didn’t have the bridge, we’d have far more people zipping through the village of Williamsville at 55 miles an hour, which is a threat to the little kids playing, it’s a threat to the character of the village, it’s a threat to our sense of community.”

(Keese) In March of 2000, the town voted to keep the covered bridge and do whatever proved necessary to repair it. After much debate, state preservationists decided they would need to start from scratch and build a new covered bridge just like the old one, but with newer, stronger building materials.

Newfane Select Board Chairman Gary Katz says the new bridge will most likely still fall under the state’s Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Plan.

(Katz) "The good news about that is, that made it eligible for 100% funding, so that it doesn’t cost the town anything.”

(Keese)  Katz says he was as surprised as anyone at the classified ad offering the old bridge to anyone willing to preserve it.

John Zicconi is a spokesman for the state Transportation Agency.

(Zicconi) "What might have acaught them by surprise, is that there’s a federal regulation that when we are going to demolish a historic structure like this, we have to advertise it for 30 days before we can demolish it because if somebody is willing to take it off our hands and save it, then that helps keep a piece of history and everybody wins by that .”

(Keese) Zicconi says that moving the old bridge could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

State officials say they’ve had half a dozen inquires so far but no takers. If noone wants the bridge, it’ll be demolished by the contractor, probably early this summer before work on the new covered  bridge begins.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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