ADDISON — Vermont and New York transportation officials said on Wednesday they are “encouraged” by the potential of establishing a temporary ferry crossing of Lake Champlain near the now-mothballed Crown Point Bridge, a move that would aid commuters and throw an economic lifeline to area businesses who depend on pass-by traffic.
Meanwhile, engineers continue to evaluate locations on both sides of the lake that could accommodate a temporary bridge, including a spot at the former ferry landing off Crown Point Road in Bridport.
John Zicconi, director of planning, outreach and community affairs for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), said the temporary ferry — with the ability to break ice and carry large vehicles — would be established around 1,000 feet south of the Crown Point Bridge.
The 80-year-old bridge, also known as the Champlain Bridge, was closed on Oct. 16 because of fears about two crumbling piers. That caused drivers of the 3,400 vehicles that crossed the bridge each day to wait for limited ferry service at Shoreham and Charlotte, Vt., or make the 80-mile detour south of the lake.
The new ferry plan would be to establish on the Vermont side a road down the embankment in the area of the Bridge Restaurant, on land owned by the state Department of Forest and Parks, according to Zicconi. There is a possibility that some nearby land, owned by West Addison General Store owners Dana and Lorraine Franklin, may also be needed to create the road, Zicconi said.
He added that while a design has not yet been finalized, the “likely scenario” calls for the ferry operation to involve “some kind of a temporary bridge leading to floating barges that cars and trucks could drive upon to get out far enough into the lake to interface with the ferry.”
He noted the lake appears to be shallow in the targeted location, so the length of the barge would likely be around 300 feet, as the ferry needs at least a 9-foot depth of water in which to operate. Lake Champlain Ferry Company would be part of the team. The landing on the New York side being investigated is also south of the bridge, on land owned by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Zicconi said the new ferry would be free and would be considered the substitute for traffic that would otherwise be going across the Champlain Bridge.
The states are currently subsidizing trips on the Shoreham-Ticonderoga, N.Y., and Charlotte-Essex, N.Y., ferry services. Those ferry rides may cease to be free once a new, larger temporary ferry is opened.
“The basic thought now is that once we offer the ferry near the (Champlain) Bridge location, that will handle traffic from the bridge,” Zicconi said.
If proven viable and put into motion, the new temporary ferry and road infrastructure would get vehicles back on Route 17 and in turn restore a large customer base for businesses like the Bridge Restaurant and West Addison General Store. Both of those Vermont businesses have had to lay off multiple workers in light of reduced commerce since the Champlain Bridge closed.
“I hope (the new ferry) actually happens,” said Bridge Restaurant owner Lisa Cloutier, who has seen the area turn into a “ghost town” in recent weeks. She said she’s thankful to community members who have supported the business for evening meals, but noted daytime traffic has been next to nil.
“During the day it has been so slow, I have contemplated closing and opening up at night,” Cloutier said.
She currently has six people working at the restaurant, down from 10.
“I want people to know that the bridge is closed, but we are still open,” Cloutier said.
Zicconi said it is too soon to tell when the expanded ferry will be in place. Along with engineering, state officials will have to get the necessary environmental, historic preservation and other permits.
“We want it as soon as possible,” Zicconi said.
TEMPORARY BRIDGE STUDY
The New York State Department of Transportation and VTrans are also studying several locations on both sides of the lake that could provide a path for a temporary bridge. Officials have been flagging a potential path leading to the old ferry landing off Crown Point Road, noted Bridport Selectman Steve Huestis.
“It is in the very preliminary stages, just being studied,” Huestis stressed.
Sally Rigg, who lives with her husband, Jon, on Crown Point Road on Lake Champlain, has seen engineers surveying and drilling in the lake for several days. She had heard they had drilled down 150 feet and not hit bedrock.
Although the Riggs do not have to commute to jobs on the opposite side of Lake Champlain, Sally Rigg noted that they do shop and dine out in New York, which they haven’t been able to do since the bridge closure. But she counts herself lucky.
“It’s not as if we were commuting, I feel bad for those people,” she said.
Although Rigg said a temporary bridge would be helpful to many people, she said it would place a hardship on her and her husband, who would all of a sudden see thousands of cars a day drive past their house on what has been a very quiet dirt road. It would also be disruptive to the four farms on Lake Street that would see a huge increase in traffic on their road.
The road to the lake is dirt and windy, Rigg noted, and only wide enough for one car. She said someone, presumably working for transportation officials, had put stakes and flags along the road to indicate how wide it would have to be made to accommodate two-way traffic. Although the widened road would take some of the Riggs’ land, she hadn’t heard from any officials about solid plans to do that as of Tuesday evening.
Bridport selectmen have yet to weigh in on the potential plan, one that would clearly bring additional traffic into the community. Huestis, speaking individually, said he believes the town should listen to what state officials have to say and determined if there is a way Bridport could help without being overwhelmed.
“Obviously, we are concerned for the thousands of people (the bridge closure) has affected,” Huestis said. “We would look to help as best we could.”
Huestis echoed others’ frustrations voiced at recent public meeting about the bridge.
“It is sad that there was never a contingency plan in case something like this happened,” he said. But Huestis added the lack of such a plan is now water under the bridge, and authorities should now turn to replacing the Champlain Bridge rather than looking at ways to extend its life.
“I don’t think you should throw good money after bad,” Huestis said.
John S. McCright contributed to this story.