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A bridge too far

Ever since Middleburys Three Mile Road bridge burned in 1958, theres been speculation among the important people in Addison Countys shiretown-and-village that a new in-town bridge would be a suitable replacementespecially as an alternate route for traffic moving along the U.S. Route 7 corridor. For at least the last half-century, the alignment of choice for the in-town bridge has been for the north end to be very near the town offices and Main Street, the bridge itself (now known hopefully as the Cross Street Bridge) heading south across the Creek past the municipal parking lot to land among the streets on the south bank. For reasons too convoluted to detail here, it remains unbuilt. A quarter-century ago, I wrote for another newspaper; in a column on the bridge subject then, I suggested that it pay its own way by serving as the site for rent-paying shops and housing on both sides of the travel lanes. It was not a particularly innovative idea on my part: An earlier example, the famous London bridge, was built some eight centuries earlier over the Thames River. The Normans had pretty much consolidated their control over most of Britain after an invasion which changed the countrys future from Anglo-Saxon to Norman-English. (Florences vintage Ponte Vecchio is similar in concept.) Not more than a score of years ago, a 19th century Thames River replacement (sans shops and housing, and therefore taxpayer funded) was taken down stone-by-stone after an American purchase. It now spans a cul-de-sac waterway near Lake Havasu City, Ariz., while a modern replica spans the Thames (also sans rentable revenue-generating space). It is free to users while funded by users and non-users alike. The important people in Middlebury didnt like my idea of a bridge-as-profit center back in the 1980s ( a selectman telephoned my house to berate me for presuming to offer a different option and not admiring the hundreds of hours spent in a fruitless pursuit of an acceptable design) abd still dont think much of it today. A recent editorial in Addison County, headlined Push for in-town bridge is ambitious and necessary, lists a range of funding mechanismsfrom taxes on locals to taxes on others so that Middlebury might harvest free money via grants. Not a word about the bridge paying its own way. That would be a bridge too far! Its understandable. In the political climate of modern Vermont, pay-your-own-way and user fees are considered beneath contempt and far less attractive to the governing class than broad-based taxes which they get to collect, pay themselves from, and distribute the remainder to favored recipients. Just imagine: What would be the reaction to any proposal that parents of school kids pay even a tiny fraction of the educational costs they generate, as they did, once upon a time, back in an earlier Vermont where rate bills were a standard and accepted way for parents to pay some fraction of the cost of their kids schooling? Even if youre offended by the London Bridge design plagiarism, you might want to consider another user-fee approach: toll collection. Elsewhere in the nation, highway engineers and economists are brainstorming over highway toll charges, either fixed or time-of-day, whereby users pay in accordance with the value the route offers them in comparison with a free (paid for by others, because nothing in infrastructure is truly free) but slower and/or more circuitous route. Such user fee concepts wouldn't be well thought of, here. One which comes to mind is Route 7 around the little common where the courthouse once stood. You have to imagine its existence, just as you have to imagine the existence of the in-town bridge.

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