See you at the bridge

MANCHESTER - One of Judith Pennock's earliest memories of Center Bridge is her father restraining her as she searched for life underwater. She remembers leaving Burr and Burton Seminary early on Friday afternoon's and meeting friends at the bridge. For Pennock, it's more than a simple structure: It's a focal point filled with great childhood memories.

"If someone said, 'see you at the bridge,' you knew what it meant," the former Manchester resident said. "It wasn't a hangout, because we didn't do that when I was younger. It was a starting point."

Some have different memories of the area; ones that include getting caught in the tight, heavily traveled bottleneck in front of the Northshire Bookstore, waiting at a blinking yellow light to make an impossible left turn. The cause of many travelers' headaches has been transformed: "Malfunction Junction" is now "Function Junction."

Construction began in the area where the West Branch of the Battenkill River flows through Manchester in the spring of 2012, eventually leading to the creation of the button roundabout and a larger one at "Malfunction Junction." Also, repairs to Center Bridge, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last September, were completed.

Throughout the years, the area has been a focus for remedial efforts. According to Manchester Historical Society President Richard Smith, the first of those repairs was the installation of a new bridge. He believes the original was built with iron in approximately 1884.

In 1912, a new bridge was constructed. This laid the foundation for the area we know today. With marble quarried from Dorset, a dry laid arch was built without the use of any other materials. This would prove to be problematic in the coming years, as Manchester Planning Director Lee Krohn would find out.

"The question came up of, 'how do we do it without the whole thing falling in on itself?'" he said.

Despite being the entry to downtown, a great deal is unknown about the area. Smith says that's the most important thing to consider when talking history; it's always "about" or "guess." The same goes for the idea that the original marble bridge was to be dedicated by then-President William Howard Taft, although no sources can confirm or deny this idea. According to previous reports by the Manchester Journal, Taft was scheduled to make an appearance, but sent a letter of condolences instead. But, there are pieces of history that link him to the area, including a picture in front of the Equinox Hotel.

"Oh boy I know I was trying to determine if Taft went over that bridge; I'm not sure if he was actually asked to dedicate it. There's no way of telling," said Smith, who believes that Taft went over the bridge on Route 7A while visiting his parents in Townshend.

The remainder of the bridge's history follows suit. In his 2000 study, "The Taming of Malfunction Junction," Earth Tech Senior Project Director Jim Ford, and VTRANS Senior Project Development Engineer Gary DuBray, write that construction was more frequent in the area than some remember.

"The Main Street Bridge was rehabilitated some five years prior to our starting this project and was such an issue that the community had shirts made which heralded, "I survived the reconstruction of Malfunction Junction!" wrote the pair.

In response to the high level of frustration that had taken hold of the community, a local committee of citizens, known as the "TIC" Committee - short for Transportation Initiative Committee was created in 1992 and led by local businessman Ron Mancini. They began considering alternatives for fixing the junction in earnest. The committee played a long and essential role in framing the conversation about the changes to the junction around the broader context of what was good for the community - pedestrians and aesthetics, for example - and expanded the conversation beyond just traffic, Krohn said. TIC hosted numerous public forums where many alternatives were discussed, including traffic signals, roundabouts, a one-way circulating loop, and combinations of them.

"We knew that community involvement leading to consensus for a solution was essential if we were ever going to resolve the problem" recalls Mancini who has chaired the committee for 20 years.

The answer was found shortly after the roundabout in front of what is now Shaw's Supermarket was built in mid-1996. It began as an experiment to see if one could thrive in town. Krohn notes how they weren't "moving mountains and bridges," like they eventually would be at Center Bridge. In the upcoming years, simulations were created, blueprints drawn, and eventually, a new highway project began. Thanks in large part to former Sen. Jim Jeffords, funding for the construction of the Roundabout was provided through federal dollars.

In 2012, ground was broken on what had become a, "downtown improvement project," said Krohn. The 20 year question of what could be done with 'Malfunction Junction' was finally coming to life, showing "the power of planning and perseverance."

Center Bridge, which received a poor safety rating due to cracks in the marble, was reconstructed. As the old arch was cut away, Krohn realized that each piece was numbered and was in awe over the complexity of what had been underneath the asphalt and concrete all this time.

"To see the arch, up close, for real was really once in a lifetime," he said.

Traffic over the bridge was shut down from Sept. 4 to Sept. 18, giving crews roughly 10 days of uninterrupted work time, which helped the speedy reconstruction of the area, despite some initial problems with ensuring the structure held. Despite the quick turn-around, the question of "will we ever get this done?" ventured into Krohn's thoughts.

Now, residents and travelers are greeted with a different view of "Malfunction Junction" as they enter town. Granite posts, decorated sidewalks, historical-style decorative lighting, and abundant landscaping fill the entry point. Pennock remembers the first flowerboxes being put in the area, but the new junction is much more captivating, she says.

"The Roundabout is stunning," she said. "It not only put the bridge back into focus, but it feels like a natural part of the intersection."

Krohn agrees, praising the efficiency and appearance of the area that is undergoing the final stretch of construction in the upcoming weeks. He says they are roughly 95 percent finished.

"Everywhere we go, people are praising the roundabout how it looks and how it feels and how it works," he said.

After 100 years, the area is no longer viewed as a "chokepoint," said Krohn. Smith speculates the bridge is the oldest remaining marble bridge left in the state, even the one in Proctor. To celebrate, the town hosted a centennial party, where the infamous blinking yellow light that was the signature of "Malfunction Junction" was auctioned off.

The town also welcomed home another piece of the bridge. While out running one day, Krohn noticed a marble monument stating it was erected in 1912 and the name of three serving selectman engraved on it near Mt. Aeolus and Bonnet Street. Manchester Historical Society Vice-President Bill Badger confirmed through old photographs that the monument was a piece of the original marble bridge. The piece, engraved with the original bridge architects name, was removed, cleaned and reinstalled at the Town Green.

The bridge is a source of pride for Pennock, who has childhood ties with the area, travelers who never thought they would see the end, but also for those like Krohn who believed in the project from day one.

"Is it exciting to see it finished?" he pauses. "Oh yeah "


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