ADDISON — An estimated 1,700 vehicles used the new ferry across Lake Champlain during its 24 hours of operation on Monday, a volume that prompted New York and Vermont transportation officials on Tuesday to request that a second ferry boat be put into service.
The second ferry, due this month, is to accommodate extra traffic during peak morning and afternoon commuting hours, according to Jon Zicconi, director of planning, outreach and community affairs for the Vermont Department of Transportation.
The free ferry service is located roughly 1,000 feet south of the former Champlain Bridge. The bridge closed for good in mid-October after extensive erosion was discovered in some of its concrete piers. The span was demolished in late December. In the meantime, crews had been working around-the-clock to create the infrastructure for the new ferry to restore traffic to a vital economic and commuter thoroughfare.
Gov. Jim Douglas and New York State Department of Transportation Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee helped mark the opening of the ferry, which made its first run at 5 a.m. Monday. Driving the first vehicle onto the ferry was Lisa Cloutier, owner of the No Bridge Restaurant. Formerly called the “Bridge Restaurant,” the Addison eatery’s business suffered after commuter traffic was cut off with the closing of the bridge.
“It was fun; I honked my horn the whole way across,” Cloutier said of the ferry ride. “(The weather) was cold, but it was worth it.”
Cloutier said ferry traffic appeared to go smoothly until about 4 p.m., when vehicles began to back up considerably. That traffic backup prompted some impatient drivers to use Cloutier’s restaurant parking lot as a shortcut between Routes 17 and 125.
Cloutier was scheduled to reopen her restaurant on Wednesday, Feb. 3. She had been closed for the past month due to the lack of pass-by traffic.
Joe Bodette, owner of the Frenchman’s Restaurant in the village of Crown Point, called the ferry a “godsend.”
“I fully expect our business to rebound quite nicely,” said Bodette, who estimated his revenues dropped 40 percent after the bridge closed.
Heather Stewart, operations manager of ferry operator Lake Champlain Transportation Co., said her crews found in conversation with early riders that those coming from the New York side in the morning were overwhelmingly commuting to jobs in Vermont, while many of those crossing into New York said they were going to shop at the Wal-Mart store in Ticonderoga.
Plus there was another variety of passenger in the first two days.
“A lot of folks just wanted to try it out, to see how it runs,” Stewart said.
The peak traffic was seen from 5 to 7 a.m. crossing into Vermont, and 3 to 7:30 p.m. crossing into New York. Runs during those times were full with commuters, Stewart said.
For now, there’s a two-axle, 15-ton weight limit for vehicles boarding the ferry. Officials said the restriction will be increased to 40 tons and multiple axles when the second ferry begins operating.
The ferry can accommodate 50 vehicles and leaves from each side of the lake every 30 minutes.
New York and Vermont authorities have estimated it cost $12 million to put in the infrastructure for the new ferry. Those costs will be covered by the two states and the federal government, according to Zicconi, as will the ongoing operating costs. The service is being subsidized to the tune of $10 per vehicle. Zicconi said preliminary estimates indicate the ferry service operating costs could reach $20.5 million by the time the new Champlain Bridge is built by the summer of 2011.
Burlington-based Lake Champlain Transportation Co. on Wednesday evening was due to close its ferry between Charlotte, Vt., and Essex, N.Y., for the rest of the winter season. The company said heavy ice was the reason.
Stewart explained that there has been more ice on Lake Champlain this year than last.
“If the temperature is 20 degrees for 24 hours that makes an inch of ice,” she said.
Stewart said the ferries operating between Addison and Crown Point could handle the icy conditions. They feature reinforced hulls, stainless steel propellers and powerful engines.
“They just churn up the ice like a coffee grinder,” Stewart said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.