I-91 construction detour gets mixed reception in Fairlee

Traffic flows southbound on Route 5, diverted from a closed six-mile stretch of I-91 between Bradford, Vt., and Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Construction crews are working to stabilize a rock face alongside the interstate that partially collapsed in February, closing southbound lanes and implementing rolling roadblocks in the northbound lanes for the duration of the project. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Traffic flows southbound on Route 5, diverted from a closed six-mile stretch of I-91 between Bradford, Vt., and Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Construction crews are working to stabilize a rock face alongside the interstate that partially collapsed in February, closing southbound lanes and implementing rolling roadblocks in the northbound lanes for the duration of the project. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News – Alex Driehaus

From left, server Catherine Sturgeon picks up a breakfast order for her table while owner Janice Neil and line cook Dara Towle prepare food behind the counter at Jan’s Fairlee Diner in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Neil said the diner has seen increased traffic since the start of the detour and now with the addition of summer visitors and holiday travel they occasionally start the day with a line into the parking lot. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

From left, server Catherine Sturgeon picks up a breakfast order for her table while owner Janice Neil and line cook Dara Towle prepare food behind the counter at Jan’s Fairlee Diner in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Neil said the diner has seen increased traffic since the start of the detour and now with the addition of summer visitors and holiday travel they occasionally start the day with a line into the parking lot. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs – Alex Driehaus

Dave Scarpato, left, president of Scarp Tec, and Jay Smerekanicz, senior engineering geologist, measure variations in the rock face along I-91 in order to design a new protective mesh in Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. The new mesh will be installed in 2025, replacing the current mesh drape that was put up in 1996. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dave Scarpato, left, president of Scarp Tec, and Jay Smerekanicz, senior engineering geologist, measure variations in the rock face along I-91 in order to design a new protective mesh in Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. The new mesh will be installed in 2025, replacing the current mesh drape that was put up in 1996. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Twenty-foot metal dowels, drilled and cemented into the rock face, provide stabilization to the area that originally collapsed in February along I-91 in Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Pete Holbrook, supervisor with contractor J.A. McDonald, said it took about a month to install the original 29 support rods, and the timeline of the project has been extended into the fall as the scope has expanded to include shoring up other areas of the ledge that could collapse. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Twenty-foot metal dowels, drilled and cemented into the rock face, provide stabilization to the area that originally collapsed in February along I-91 in Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Pete Holbrook, supervisor with contractor J.A. McDonald, said it took about a month to install the original 29 support rods, and the timeline of the project has been extended into the fall as the scope has expanded to include shoring up other areas of the ledge that could collapse. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Miranda Locke talks to customers as she works the register at Wings Market and Deli in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Locke said business has picked up as a result of the detour, and the gas station has run out of fuel at least twice due to high demand, despite being set up for automatic deliveries from their supplier. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Miranda Locke talks to customers as she works the register at Wings Market and Deli in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, July 5, 2024. Locke said business has picked up as a result of the detour, and the gas station has run out of fuel at least twice due to high demand, despite being set up for automatic deliveries from their supplier. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-08-2024 5:31 PM

Modified: 07-09-2024 2:42 PM


FAIRLEE — In the months since construction on Interstate 91 has diverted traffic to Route 5 in downtown Fairlee, Jan Neil has noticed new faces at her business, Jan’s Fairlee Diner.

“We’ve had several customers coming in, saying they’ve passed through, and they come back on a day they haven’t been traveling to appointments or work because they didn’t even know the diner was here,” Neil said in a phone interview. “It’s boomed up a little bit of business and it’s brought in some new clients which is great.”

A roughly 6-mile stretch between exits 15 and 16 on I-91 South between Bradford, Vt., and Fairlee has been closed since mid-April as construction crews work to stabilize a rock face that partially collapsed in late February.

As a result, motorists must use Route 5 South as a detour.

Initially, plans called for the work to be completed by mid-to-late August. Now, that timetable has shifted to sometime this fall, according Bruce Martin, a Vermont Agency of Transportation project manager who is overseeing the repairs.

As they started to work on the site, workers “found several locations that would be expected to fail and could overwhelm the Southbound lanes with rock material,” Martin wrote in an email.

As a result, they decided to expand the scope of the project to encompass the entire rock ledge.

“The Fairlee project is on the tallest rock cut/rock slope that lies along the roadway that is feasible to stabilize,” Martin wrote. “No other project in the state, of this scope, can serve as a comparison.”

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The detour has had a mixed reception among Fairlee residents and business owners. There was disappointment that the annual Fourth of July parade between Orford and Fairlee had to be canceled, after VTrans declined to issue a parade permit.

The Prouty, an annual event to raise funds for the Dartmouth Cancer Center scheduled to take place Saturday, was also forced to cancel its 50-mile bike route as a result of the detour. (Other routes around the Upper Valley, ranging from 20 to 100 miles on road, gravel and mountain bikes will go on as planned.)

Fairlee resident Elizabeth Wilson, who has lived on Route 5 for 12 years, said that few people follow the 30 miles-per-hour speed limit outside her home. She’d like to see more consideration given to pedestrians.

“During the school year, it would be nice to have a traffic guard at the school intersection,” Wilson wrote in an email. “It is tricky getting out of there.”

Fairlee Town Administrator Ryan Lockwood said residents have brought concerns about speeding on Route 5 in downtown Fairlee to town officials.

“People don’t really want to be delayed so we have some speeding issues through town,” Lockwood said in a phone interview late last month.

Others have brought up concerns about diesel fumes from tractor trailers that pass through.

At times, rolling roadblocks have been put into place on I-91 North due to work being done on the southbound side. There have been reports of people getting on the I-91 North ramp and then backing down it once they realize there are rolling roadblocks.

“Traffic wise, it’s kind of a nightmare,” Lockwood said.

In the first roughly six weeks the detour was in place, more than 293,000 vehicles traveled on Route 5 south through Fairlee, according to data collected by a speed sign Fairlee Police Chief Wayne Briggs put up, he said.

While Briggs does not have data from the same time period the year before, he added that “it’s fair to say it’s significant(ly)” higher than in the past.

There’s also been an increase in resident complaints about vehicles speeding on Route 5 and some more fender benders that have resulted in traffic being backed up.

“I’ve put on more miles in my car and used up more of my gas budget that I was planning on at this time,” said Briggs, who is the sole police officer for the town of Fairlee.

When he’s not there, Vermont State Police provide coverage. “You do what you can and you pray you’re in the right place at the right time.”

But the additional traffic doesn’t worry everyone. Businesses, including Jan’s Fairlee Diner and accompanying Gladstone Creamery, along Route 5 have seen an increase in customers.

Wing’s Market and Deli has had to increase its gas deliveries, owner Sam Adams said.

He’s also adjusted staff schedules so more people are on hand during the morning and evening rush hours.

“On an everyday basis, having more people travel on a local road has brought more business to town,” Adams said in a phone interview.

Although, like others, he lamented the loss of the Fourth of July celebration. “We definitely look forward to that returning next year.”

Down the street at Chapman’s General, assistant manager Meagan Zubkoff said she’s noticed a steady stream of new customers.

Often patrons will pick up a cup of coffee at Sunnyside Coffee Company then come to Chapman’s to browse.

“We’re getting the out-of-towners, the tourists stopping by looking for Vermont maple syrup,” Zubkoff said in a phone interview.

The Fairlee Community Arts Summer Concert Series started on the Town Common the first Tuesday in July. Zubkoff described the event as well attended and said the relatively new crosswalks on Route 5 have made a difference, along with the sidewalks.

“That’s super helpful too, having a designated area to walk,” Zubkoff said.

She acknowledged that during the school year, traffic would sometimes back up on Route 5 during pickup and drop-off times at Samuel Morey Elementary School. But she said there’s a solution.

“For the most part, I think if you just pack seven,10 more minutes into your day, you get through it all right,” Zubkoff said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.