BRANDON — Dick and Debbie Kirby went to their first meeting about rebuilding Route 7 in 1955.
Back then, the newlyweds were trying to decide where to buy land and build their first house.
Sixty-two years ago, the talk was about building a bypass around Brandon, Dick Kirby recalled Monday after the official groundbreaking for the $20.8 million project that will reconstruct 1.2 miles of bumpy, sharp-turning Route 7 as it goes through downtown Brandon.
The project will rebuild the road and add two traffic lights. It will also put in new water and sewer lines, bury a lot of overhead utility lines, add new curbing and sidewalks, new trees, park benches and a reconfigured traffic flow.
A bevy of politicians and project officials took their gold-colored shovels to a heap of dirt in the middle of Central Park on Monday morning, signifying the beginning of construction, which is expected to take 30 months and in the process create “An Even Better Brandon” as the tagline says.
Gov. Phil Scott and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch were on hand to laud the project, which is heavily funded by the Federal Highway Administration (85 percent) and the Vermont Agency of Transportation, (10 percent.) The town is paying 5 percent.
The Kirbys were there in the background at Central Park to support the ambitious project. Later, in an interview at their home on Forest Dale Road, they said they wholeheartedly support the project, even if it was a long time coming.
Dick Kirby, 86, and Debbie, 80, have seen a lot of change in Vermont in the past 60-plus years, and both said they were delighted by the project.
“They’ve been talking about it for more than 60 years,” said Debbie Kirby. “A lot of work has gone into it,” she said.
“They did a great job with the overflow culvert,” said Dick Kirby — proof that town officials knew how to manage a large project in the center of the town and keep businesses alive.
“But it’s going to be a nuisance,” he said.
“Downtown parking has always been a bit of a problem,” she said.
The Kirbys said they went to the 1955 meeting at the local school so they would know where not to buy land. They didn’t want to live on busy Route 7, they said.
The bypass never came to be, Dick Kirby said, because downtown merchants were afraid of the impact of funneling traffic away from the downtown area.
Traffic and keeping the business community alive is a major concern of the people running the 2017-19 project.
Joe Casella, whose company, Casella Construction Co., of Mendon, won the bid to rebuild Segment 6 of the Route 7 project, said keeping traffic flowing was a high priority for the project.
And Brandon Public Works Director Daryl Burlett, who is managing the effort for the town, said the project will have two lanes of traffic moving through the construction scene. He said keeping traffic flowing to area businesses was of high importance.
Town Manager Dave Atherton said rebuilding Route 7 — removing the original concrete base — and rebuilding a modern road to handle heavy truck traffic had been talked about for years.
“They’re doing the hardest section first. It’s going to be so nice when it’s done. I’m excited,” said Atherton, who will be able to see the construction site out of his office window in 2018.
Seth Hopkins, chairman of the Brandon Select Board, said the start of the project in Central Park would be the toughest.
The fountain and the Civil War monument will not be moved, he said, although the town bandstand will be pushed back a bit. The 90-degree turn in front of the Lake Sunapee Bank will be eliminated, and two traffic lights will be installed.
The next segment, the downtown business district, will be done next spring and summer — but to accommodate businesses, work will be conducted at night.
Hopkins and other Brandon officials were ebullient Monday morning, as years of planning and debate turned into something concrete.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience in Brandon,” Hopkins said.