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Kreis: Bridge Innovation

Interstate 91 in Brattleboro is hardly the Golden Gate, but as we speak, an engineering marvel worthy of the Golden Gate Bridge is taking shape there.This is according to my friend Martin Langeveld, a veteran newspaper publisher from over that way, who recently sent me an article from Roads and Bridges magazine. Bridge fanatics like Martin read Roads and Bridges the way I read The New Yorker .

It turns out that each year, Roads and Bridges puts out a list of its top ten bridge projects of the year. And topping the most recent list is the new Interstate 91 bridge now under construction across the West River, between exits 2 and 3.

That surprises me, because I barely notice I’m crossing the West River when passing through Brattleboro. The new bridge, like the old pair of bridges it’s replacing, won’t be visible from the vantage point of its users.

But Roads and Bridges magazine says this emerging span features “a whole gallery of engineering innovations” that center on the use of something called a “quad wall pier system.” Basically, the bridge will have two piers, each with four branches that are supposed to resemble trees with limbs strong enough to carry one big span of steel-reinforced concrete, allowing room enough for as many as eight lanes of traffic.

But that’s not why my friend Martin told me about this project. He told me about it because it’s been driving him nuts – so now it’s driving me nuts too.

The designers plan to cover their tree-like piers with fake stone work. Then they’re gonna paint the underside of the bridge sky-blue because – get this – they think people paddling on the river under the bridge will think it looks naturalistic.

But to paraphrase Louis Kahn, the greatest American architect of the 20 th Century – concrete doesn’t want to be fake stonework – it wants to be concrete. You’d think the designers of this bridge – a Florida firm called FIGG - would know this, since the motto on their web site is “bridges as art.”

So I’m afraid what we’ll end up with is a genuinely graceful span despoiled by a superficial faux aesthetic. And maybe it’s just as well that visitors arriving in Vermont via I-91 really won’t know what they’re missing. But I can well imagine that the great bridge engineer Othmar Amann, who kept the granite off the arrestingly naked steel of his George Washington Bridge, must be rolling in his grave.