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Schell Bridge: Who would pay for upkeep?

Recorder file photo
The proposed recreational river crossing to replace the Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield would be designed as an homage to the 515-foot steel cantilever truss bridge donated to the town by wealthy summer resident Francis Schell in 1904.

Recorder file photo The proposed recreational river crossing to replace the Schell Memorial Bridge in Northfield would be designed as an homage to the 515-foot steel cantilever truss bridge donated to the town by wealthy summer resident Francis Schell in 1904.

NORTHFIELD — Who will be responsible for the upkeep and liability of a recreational replacement for the Schell Memorial Bridge?

Though a bicycle and foot bridge modeled after the deteriorating structure would be built with federal and state funds, costing Northfield nothing, the town could be stuck with long-term costs if it ends up owning the new bridge.

“The Selectboard was really pleasantly shocked to find out about the proposal” to replace the bridge, said Selectboard Chairman John “Jack” Spanbauer. “The issue of ownership poses a fly in the ointment that needs to be resolved.”

The state Department of Transportation estimates a price tag of $5 million to demolish and replace the bridge, state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said Thursday.

The DOT is now trying to put the bridge on its five-year transportation improvement plan. The project would be paid with 80 percent federal and 20 percent state money, but it’s unclear who will pay for maintenance, repairs, and insurance afterward.

A panel discussion held by the Friends of Schell Bridge explored possible answers to the ownership question this week. Rosenberg, as well as state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, were both on the panel. Both local legislators have strongly supported the project.

“The (state Department of Transportation) has made it clear that they won’t take the bridge,” Rosenberg said. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, though, may be interested in owning it, he said, if the bridge is incorporated into the DCR-managed Franklin County Bikeway network.

That worked in Montague, where a former railroad trestle was rehabilitated as a bike path. The DOT was willing to pay for the project and the DCR was willing to take ownership, said panelist Maureen Mullaney of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

If the DCR doesn’t want to take responsibility for the bridge, the agency could still help create a park at either or both ends of the structure, something many residents have said they’d like to see.

Panelists agreed that the town should get DCR involved early in the process.

They also agreed that the bridge’s design should include materials that require as little maintenance as possible, even if it increases construction costs. This would make it less of a financial liability for a potential owner.

Many would like to see the bridge worked into a tri-state bike route, a loop linking Northfield to Brattleboro, Vt., and Keene, N.H.

Panelist and bicyclist Peter Talmage of Northfield said a recreational bridge could end up paying for its own maintenance. Managed and promoted correctly, he said, it could bring a lot of tourists to town.

As part of a larger network of trails, the bridge would be a boon to local businesses, said Talmage, and could even support a bike shop in Northfield.

Panelist and engineer Carl Goldknopf worked on a bike bridge in his hometown of Keene, N.H. He said an annual “Four on the Fourth (of July)” four-mile footrace involving Keene’s pathways is a huge draw for his town.

While there is a lot of excitement about the plans for a new Schell Bridge, it’s bittersweet for those who wanted to see the bridge repaired rather than replaced. The bridge abutments could be re-used, though, and parts of the old bridge may be incorporated into a park at either end.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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