ADDISON — A bi-state celebration of the opening of the new Champlain Bridge originally scheduled for mid-October has been postponed until May because organizers could not get a guarantee from New York transportation officials that the new span will be completed on time.
An ad hoc Lake Champlain Bridge Community (LCBC) panel, made up of more than 50 volunteers from Vermont and New York, has been planning a two-day celebration to mark the unveiling of the $70 million Champlain Bridge that will link West Addison with Crown Point, N.Y.
That panel, co-chaired by Addison resident and storeowner Lorraine Franklin, had scheduled the festivities for Oct. 15 and 16. That’s about a week after the lapsing of a 500-day contract that bridge contractor Flatiron Construction was given to complete the project.
But a brutal winter, spring flooding and underwater obstacles caused delays in the project, to the extent that Flatiron was granted a 65-day extension by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). Still, Flatiron marshaled new equipment and resources in an effort to make up for lost time, prompting NYSDOT officials to voice optimism this spring that work would still be complete by the original Oct. 9 deadline.
Franklin said she and her colleagues no longer sense such optimism from NYSDOT and can no longer risk planning a two-day, regional celebration for a weekend during which the bridge might not yet be open.
“We couldn’t get a definitive answer from the NYSDOT on when this bridge would be open, so we thought it would be unfair to string people along,” she said.
Franklin and other celebration organizers met with NYSDOT officials in March to get an update on when the project would be done.
“They said, ‘We’ll know by early summer,’” she recalled.
Franklin said committee members checked back with NYDOT in early summer and were told to wait “a few more weeks.”
Franklin and some of her colleagues next met with NYSDOT officials on July 12 and unveiled their preliminary celebration details. Those plans were greeted with enthusiasm and a message that a completion date for the bridge would likely be known in “early August,” said Franklin.
“We gave them until Aug. 12, and we got no response,” she said. “And no news is not good news when you are talking to the state of New York.”
Carol Breen, spokesperson for the NYSDOT, confirmed on Tuesday that an opening date for the new bridge has yet to be decided.
“Right now, we are in discussions with the contractor ... to figure out where we are,” Breen said. “Negotiations are ongoing.”
A frustrated group of celebration committee members met on Monday to determine what to do next and voted unanimously to postpone the two-day festivities until May 19 and 20.
“Most people breathed a sign of relief,” Franklin said of the reaction to setting a definitive date. “And it gives us more time to plan the celebration and get more people involved.”
With that in mind, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has pledged his administration’s help. Megan Smith, Vermont Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing, attended the LCBC’s Monday meeting and offered her assistance in coordinating the celebration.
The LCBC has thus far raised $17,500, along with some in-kind contributions, to apply to the grand opening extravaganza.
“We need to raise a lot more. We want a grand celebration,” Franklin said.
A May celebration, committee members reasoned, will allow more time for fund-raising and event planning. A May date will also catch people during the traditional season of renewal — particularly a propos for saluting the new bridge, Franklin noted.
“There will be a ‘new beginnings’ theme,” she said, along with “making lemonade out of lemons” to reflect making the best out of the celebration postponement.
While organizers lament the fact that the new bridge will have already been open for several months prior to the main celebration, they noted a smaller-scale event will still come off this fall.
The town of Addison will fete its 250th birthday on Oct. 15 and 16. The town’s festivities will feed into a gathering on the Crown Point side of the bridge to raise funds for the May celebration. The Crown Point gathering will feature a benefit barbecue, raffle and a special appearance nearby of the replica sailing canal boat Lois McClure, courtesy of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
“This will give us an opportunity to build some momentum,” Franklin said. “I don’t think the enthusiasm (for a May celebration) will die just because the bridge is up.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, commended the committee for its work and agreed with its decision to delay the festivities given the construction unknowns.
“There was a lot of uncertainty ... And we are up against the weather,” Lanpher said, adding, “There are a lot of positives for having this in the spring.”
Those interested in learning more about the bridge festivities may log on to www.champlainbridgecommunity.org.
John Flowers is at [email protected]