ADDISON, Vt. / CROWN POINT, N.Y. — The new Lake Champlain Bridge was inaugurated on Monday with the promise that it would serve as a vital transportation link between Vermont and New York for at least the next three-quarters of a century.
But for the first 45 minutes of its new life it served as a $76 million walkway, its massive concrete deck teeming with hundreds of walkers, joggers and cyclists celebrating the rebirth of a conduit between the Green Mountain and Empire states that had been missing for two years. By 4:40 p.m. the 2,200-foot-long bridge was funneling scores of shoppers, workers, tourists, truckers, farmers and weary travelers in vehicles to their destinations.
Speaking before a crowd that included more than a dozen citizens who had witnessed the opening of the former Champlain Bridge in 1929, a group of New York and Vermont officials cut the ribbon for the new span. They hailed it as a marvel of engineering erected in just a quarter of the eight years usually required for such an undertaking.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and New York Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy walked side-by-side across the bridge to symbolically mark the opening the span and to give kudos to the workers of Flatiron Construction who built the structure.
“They worked through hell and high water and believe me, we had both during the past year and a half,” one of the speakers, Lake Champlain Community co-chairwoman Lorraine Franklin said of the construction workers. “On an incredibly accelerated timeline, they worked under some of the worst (weather) conditions we have ever seen in this region.”
Franklin, co-owner of the West Addison General Store, harkened back to what she called a “defining moment” in the effort to build a new bridge. It was a meeting at the Addison Central School on Oct. 27, 2009 — 11 days after the old bridge was closed because officials declared it unsafe.
“It was a moment when the community united in one loud voice, demanding that a new bridge be built right where it was then, and that a temporary bridge or ferry be built right next to it,” Franklin said, noting that citizens objected to a leading suggestion that the new span be built 20 miles away, in Shoreham.
Franklin said she was pleased that New York and Vermont officials honored the citizens’ preferred option.
“We echo Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statement 82 years ago that this marriage is indeed a marriage between two states,” Lorraine Franklin said. “May there never be a divorce, and for goodness sake, may there never be another separation.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, also saluted the completion of the project. Lanpher and fellow Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, represent the House district that includes Addison. Lanpher is also a member of the House Transportation Committee, which explored the logistics and funding of the project.
“What you see standing before you represents a lot more than concrete and steel and iron,” Lanpher said, pointing behind her at the new bridge with its elegant eight-story, 402-foot-long, 1.8 million-pound arch. “It represents what is possible when determination meets innovation and is sparked by commitment.”
Shumlin praised the grassroots manner through which local residents, business owners, farmers and municipal officials rallied to promote a bridge project that best suited and served the area.
“The local communities … joined hands and said, ‘We’ve got a problem to solve and we’re going to solve it together,’” Shumlin said. “That’s the way to get things done as a family — New York, Vermont, in the interests of our citizens, in the interest of jobs, agriculture and health care. It all made a huge difference.”
Continuing the marriage metaphor, Shumlin likened the bridge a “new diamond on a very important marriage” between the two states. But he said the new diamond, or bridge in this case, can be fixed with new parts over the years without placing it out of commission.
“This bridge will be here forever, because of technology, good workmanship and good craftsmanship,” Shumlin said.
Duffy called the new Champlain Bridge an example of “two great states working together.”
To the crowd, Duffy said, “You pulled together and made it happen.”
Citizens of all ages came from miles around to view the spectacle and to become a part of history.
Among those making the pilgrimage were Jack and Louisa Anderson from just down the road in Addison. The couple has been using the free ferry service, which was installed after the old bridge was imploded at the end of December 2009, to make a few trips a week into New York for shopping and family visits.
One of Jack Anderson’s ancestors was the keeper of a lighthouse near the bridge site. His grandparents, who lived in Addison, were present for the unveiling of the first span.
“It has been an interesting project to watch,” Anderson said. “I have talked to engineers on the bridge quite often to see what’s going on.”
Steve Buker of Lincoln was among those who witnessed the implosion of the old bridge. He and his family used to live in Addison, so they had used the old bridge on many occasions.
It seemed only fitting that he see the unwrapping of the new span.
“We have been out here several times looking at the progress,” Buker said. “We figured we should be here for the opening.”
But the new bridge unveiling was a particular treat for the so called ’29ers who were present for the opening of the former bridge 82 years ago. The group got a special section of seating at Monday’s ceremony. Among them was Clara Breen McCarthy of Hudson Falls, N.Y., who was 8 years old in 1929.
“I stood right at the end of the bridge there,” she said, pointing to a vantage point on the Crown Point side. “I can’t remember too much about it and who talked. My mother was with me.”
McCarthy, like many others, watched with interest as the new bridge took shape during the past two years. She came out on Monday hoping to reconnect with some memories and faces from eight decades ago.
“I like to see the people and thought I’d like to see some people from long ago,” she said.
Bill Larrabee of Vergennes was 7 years old when his family witnessed the opening of the old Champlain Bridge. He proudly took a seat next to his fellow ’29ers at Monday’s festivities.
“It is kind of awesome to think back and bring all your thoughts up to date,” Larrabee said. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”
He called the design of the new bridge “beautiful.”
Ruth Pytlak of Plattsburgh was 10 years old when she saw FDR, then governor of New York, and Vermont Gov. John Weeks salute the opening of the first Champlain Bridge in 1929.
“It was a wonderful occasion,” Pytlak said. “It was a sunny, warm day — a lot of people were here. Some of them brought picnic lunches.”
Pytlak came with her parents, brothers and sisters.
This time, she was one of the elder statespeople.
“That bridge was so important for so many people for so many years, for people on both sides of the lake,” she said. “I felt badly when the bridge had to go. So I have been very interested in the new bridge and wanted to be here when it opened.”
LIFE WITHOUT THE BRIDGE
Carol Sweeney is one of hundreds of New York residents who commute to jobs in Addison County, to such businesses as Porter Medical Center, Goodrich Corp. and Middlebury College. Their traveling routines were turned upside down in October of 2009 when the old bridge closed. Even the highly praised temporary ferry system has added roughly 30 minutes to morning and afternoon commutes.
“I’ll get an extra 30 minutes of sleep in the morning,” Sweeney, a Porter Hospital worker, said on Monday of how her routine will be affected by the new bridge.
“I am so happy to get part of my life back,” Sweeney said. “I have been waiting for this day to arrive.”
People who used the bridge for other reasons also saw their lives disrupted after the old bridge was closed. Some Vermont farmers had fields on the New York side that became harder to get to without the bridge.
Penny French of Crown Point has four grown children living in Vermont and grandchildren in the Burlington area whom she saw would travel to see over the old bridge, until it was closed.
“I went to see them about four times a week but after the bridge closed I go about once a week,” French said, explaining that without the bridge her travel time doubled.
“It did change everything,” she added.
With the opening of the new span, French expects to see her grandchildren more often.
Dana Franklin, co-owner of the West Addison General Store, was also pleased with the new bridge. He and other area business owners hope the new bridge will restore what had been a nice pattern of sales to commuters who will now be less pressed for time and more likely to stop for groceries, gas and meals.
“It’s going to make things better, that’s for sure,” Franklin said. “We have been looking forward to this for quite a while.”
Franklin, the husband of Lorraine Franklin, said that the temporary ferries certainly helped, as did business from folks working on the new bridge.
The ferries ran round-the-clock during construction. But the ferry lights went dark at the same time that lights went on along the arch of the new bridge.
The ferry service began on Feb. 1, 2010, and was in continuous service until Monday. The two ferries dispensed rides at a combined clip of 400,000 passengers per year, according to Margaret Murphy, assistant operations manager for Lake Champlain Transportation, the company that ran the ferries.
The company employed 70 full- and part-time workers during the temporary service and will unfortunately now have to lay people off, according to Murphy.
“We will keep as many as we can,” she said.
“We feel that everything went smoothly,” she added. “We believe that was thanks to our dedicated employees, old and new, who made everything work so well.”
The Lake Champlain Community is organizing a major celebration of the new bridge that will be held on May 19-20 of next year.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]