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Historic groups urge rehabilitating Lake Champlain Bridge

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March 15, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

ADDISON — Three regional historic preservation groups are urging the New York Department of Transportation (NYDOT) to rehabilitate, rather than replace, the deteriorating Lake Champlain Bridge.

Representatives of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Preservation League of New York State (PLNYS) and Adirondack Architectural Heritage made their feelings known on Wednesday at a press conference at the Crown Point State Historic Site. At that meeting, PLNYS officials announced they were adding the Champlain Bridge  — also known as the Crown Point Bridge — to the organization’s “Seven to Save” list. The list annually features seven historic sites in New York that the organization has deemed “in danger of disappearing because of lack of funding and financial incentives, insensitive public policies, general neglect, disinvestment and … outright demolition.”

“With this listing, we want to say to local, regional and statewide groups that we think we need to look at something other than replacement for this bridge,” PLNYS President Jay DiLorenzo said during a telephone interview on Monday.

DiLorenzo called the Champlain Bridge “significant, architecturally,” as well as “an icon” for nearby residents and the many commuters who regularly use the 78-year-old span.

The Champlain Bridge opened on Aug. 26, 1929, amid elaborate ceremonies that featured, among other dignitaries, Franklin Delano Roosevelt — then governor of New York — and Vermont Gov. John Weeks. At 2,186 feet long and 32 feet wide, the concrete and steel truss structure was an ambitious project for its day, erected at a cost of $870,000.

But time has taken its toll on the bridge, one of only two that span Lake Champlain. The bridge — last rehabilitated in 1991 — is showing signs of corrosion and disrepair. New York state bears primary responsibility for maintenance of the bridge. The NYDOT has tentatively set 2012 as the date for either replacement or a major overhaul of the span. While 2012 may seem fairly distant to some, regional historic preservation groups want to go on record early in the planning process that they favor fixing the bridge as opposed to replacing it with a conventional, nondescript concrete deck and piers.

Ann Cousins, a field service representative for the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said the Champlain Bridge is not only a piece of history but a feat of elegant engineering.

“From an engineering perspective, it combines three different truss systems, done very gracefully,” Cousins said. “The lines of the truss system are beautifully designed. It was always meant to be a very visual gateway.”

Cousins said that view, and others supportive of the current bridge, were shared by some of the more than 100 people who showed up at an Aug. 29, 2006, public meeting held by the NYDOT in Port Henry.

Cousins added she believed the DOT “revealed a bias toward replacing, rather than rehabilitating (the bridge)” at that Aug. 29 meeting.

But NYDOT officials have apparently not closed the door on repairing the Champlain Bridge.

The NYDOT and Vermont Agency of Transportation announced on March 9 the formation of a public advisory committee that will “participate in planning for the rehabilitation or replacement of the Lake Champlain Bridge at Crown Point and Chimney Point,” according to a press release issued by the NYDOT.

The New York and Vermont offices of historic preservation will participate in the Crown Point Bridge project’s development, providing expert advice to the transportation agencies for both states, as well as to the public advisory committee as requested, according to NYDOT spokesman Peter Van Keuren.

Project costs will be split between the two states, which are in the process of finalizing a bi-state agreement on how the project will be coordinated. Once that is completed, a design consultant will be hired to begin scoping the project. The consultant’s first task will be to perform a detailed inspection and structural analysis of the existing bridge. Officials anticipate it will take six to 12 months to select a consultant, and another 12 months for the consultant to complete the evaluation of the span.

Cousins and her colleagues will closely watch the process. They fear the demise of the current Champlain Bridge could accelerate replacement of other old truss bridges throughout the country.

Cousins pointed to statistics showing that around half of the nation’s historic truss bridges have been lost during the past 20 years.

“If we can’t save the Champlain Bridge … there are so many of these other bridges scattered across Vermont that will also be at risk,” Cousins said.

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