Hillsboro “Bridge to Nowhere” draws fire
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(Hillsboro, NH) Federal taxpayers are either spending $220,000 to preserve a unique piece of local history, or they’re throwing money away on New Hampshire’s version of a “Bridge to Nowhere”. An historic bridge that can only be accessed from one side of the river it crosses is being highlighted as a sign of misplaced priorities in the federal stimulus bill.
The Union Leader tops its print edition with a story by correspondent Greg Kwasnik about the use of $150,000 in federal stimulus money to preserve an historic stone arch bridge in this reporter’s hometown of Hillsboro.
The bridge, which dates back to the 1860′s, end in a sheer, 8-foot drop after it crosses the Contoocook River. Traffic no longer crosses the span, which parallels a modern bridge near the intersection of Routes 202 and 149*.
According to Recovery.gov, the government website that tracks spending through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the town of Hillsborough received $150,045 in stimulus funding to repair the bridge.
A project description on the ARRA website explains that the project was intended to preserve and resurface the bridge to “better accommodate pedestrians and bicycles.” The website also claims that the project created 1.90 jobs, including laborers and equipment operators.”
Kwasnik’s story does not mention that most of the remaining funds for the project also come from federal taxpayers, and not Hillsboro voters. The project also received a Transportation Enhancement grant of $88,000, only 20% of which comes from a local match. That means that local taxpayers, who approved the bridge repair at Town Meeting this spring, have only had to come up with $17,600 out of the $220,445 spent so far to patch up the 150 year old bridge.
Hillsboro is home to a concentration of stone arch bridges, five of which remain from the 19th century. Because neither wood nor mortar could withstand the stresses of harsh New England winters and rapidly flooding steams, local stone masons used dry-masonry techniques, cutting and fitting stones to support their own weight. Four such bridges are still in use on Hillsboro’s back roads, but the bridge at the intersection of Routes 202 and 9 was replaced over ten years ago, as it was inadequate to handle the large amount of traffic between Hillsboro and Antrim.
Local leaders had been working for years to preserve the bridge, which sat abandoned for years. Bill Watson is the Administrator of the Bureau of Planning and Community Assistance at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. He says that when the town initially applied for the bridge preservation project in 2001, the cost was estimated at $137,000. When it finally went out to bid in 2007, the construction portion of the project alone came back at $350,000. So the project languished until last year’s Stimulus Act promised to pick nearly the entire cost.
Watson says crews rehabilitated the underlying structure of bridge, put down an impermeable membrane on top of the bridge deck to protect it from both salt and weather, and laid down a fresh layer of gravel on its surface. The bridge is now surrounded by a black iron guardrail on three sides.
Town Administrator John Stetser tells the Union Leader that voters overwhelmingly supported the $270,386 project in March, and that’s it’s not complete.
“We want to put some benches up, we’re going to put up some lights, we’re going to be able to have events there, and we’re working on the parking. It’s going to be a cultural and historical hub to the town.”
The project has drawn criticism from Republican Congressional candidate Sean Mahoney, who calls it New Hampshire’s own “Bridge to Nowhere.” Mahoney posted a short video highlighting what he calls a “colossal waste of taxpayer money” earlier this week, bringing attention to the bridge, which Watson says will receive its final inspection by next week.
And while the town’s application for stimulus dollars touts the bridge as a resource for pedestrians and bicyclists, the bridge currently dead-ends on the far side of the river. Watson says the town will be responsible for parking, a proposed visitors kiosk, and the extensive landscaping that would be needed to put the bridge back into limited service. But with the federal portion of the project done, the historic span is no closer to serving a working bridge than before work began.
*The bridge is at the junction of Routes 202 and 9. Route 149 is a few miles north.
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Hillsboro “Bridge to Nowhere” draws fire
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