Champlain Bridge to be demolished; new ferry in works

ADDISON — The 80-year-old Champlain Bridge is unsalvageable and will be replaced, most likely at its current location on Route 17 between Addison, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y.
Vermont and New York transportation officials made that announcement on Monday using the weather-beaten, rusting span as their backdrop. As they spoke, work crews could be seen on a barge in the shallows of the lake, around 1,000 yards south of the Champlain Bridge, taking measurements to determine the feasibility of a new ferry service that would accommodate the approximately 3,400 vehicles that used the span each day until it closed Oct. 16 due to pier deterioration.
“Because of the recommendations made by our engineers … we have determined that this bridge is unsafe for motorists and is also unstable,” said Stanley Gee, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). “Because of its instability, we are recommending to the governors (of New York and Vermont) that this bridge needs to demolished and torn down for the safety of both users on the bridge and boaters under the bridge.”
As Gee spoke, NYSDOT officials stood behind him holding up posters illustrating damage that forced closure of the bridge.
He pointed to the engineering study of the span — which included an underwater survey — that states, “If any major cracks were to develop diagonally in the pier or deterioration reduces the contact bearing area between concrete segments, the pier could fail without warning. The risk and safety for personnel working in close proximity to the existing, fragile bridge is too great to permit rehabilitation in any form. Moving forward, the existing bridge should be razed in a controlled manner eliminating the risk of sudden, potentially catastrophic, bridge failure.”
Plans call for a new bridge — which could cost upwards of $50 million — to be installed in the same location. Vermont and New York jointly own the Champlain Bridge, but its upkeep is primarily New York’s responsibility. Gee could not outline a timetable for demolition and reconstruction, saying such a timeline is dependant on design, permitting and financing. But he did say that eliminating rehabilitation as an option is likely to shave a year off a project that had been estimated for completion by 2013.
“We are moving quickly through the environmental process necessary to make this happen,” Gee said. “We are going to build a replacement bridge as close to the existing bridge as possible to minimize the impact on the environment and our historic resources in the area. This bridge already has a footprint; the closer we stay to this footprint, the less impact it’s going to have.”
David Dill, Vermont’s Secretary of Transportation, echoed Gee’s sense of urgency at the same Monday press conference.
“We will begin the process of working on a new bridge immediately,” Dill said. “The bridge closure significantly disrupted communities on both sides of the lake, and the fastest way to return families, businesses and farms back to normal is to quickly provide them a new bridge.”
Transportation officials said the Champlain Bridge is inspected annually by the NYSDOT, along with an underwater survey every five years. Deterioration of the concrete piers accelerated dramatically since the last underwater inspection in 2005, according to Robert Dennison, chief engineer for the NYSDOT.
“The fatal problem that the bridge faces is foundations,” Dennison said. “The foundations were constructed in the 1920s when the bridge was built, they are un-reinforced concrete with suspicious stone in it … The conclusion we have come to is that the foundation is too unpredictable and too likely for an unpredictable collapse. It is too dangerous to work around and too dangerous to repair.”
Indeed, NYSDOT officials conceded that the Champlain Bridge has been living on borrowed time.
“The bridge was designed with a 70-year design life; we are 80 years into it,” Dennison said. “The designers made some assumptions when they did that original design and their assumptions were unfortunately more accurate than we would like, that it has exceeded its capacity and exceeded its design life.”
Closure of the Champlain Bridge has created financial hardships for hundreds of New Yorkers who commute to Addison County businesses, along with various shops are restaurants those commuters have frequented along the way. Commuters currently have access to free lake crossings through the Shoreham-Ticonderoga, Basin Harbor-Westport and Charlotte-Essex ferries. Travelers have also been getting free bus service from the Crown Point, N.Y., area to major businesses in Vergennes and Middlebury, Vt.
In addition, Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) this week announced that effective Nov. 11, it was offering “Dial A Ride” transportation service to Addison County businesses in conjunction with the three aforementioned ferry services.
Commuters arriving by foot through any of the three ferry services can book a free ride through a volunteer driver to their Addison County-based employer by calling ACTR (802) 388-1946 during business hours (7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) or e-mailing [email protected] at least 24 hours before the ride is needed. Return rides to the ferry, if needed, will also be scheduled. ACTR will combine ride requests when possible.
It should be noted that ACTR also operates a shuttle bus service from the Basin Harbor ferry, which docks in Ferrisburgh and transports only pedestrians.
While the current ferries have been operating overtime to meet crossing demand, they will not be able to meet demand much longer. With that in mind, transportation officials said a new ferry service — with icebreaker capabilities — is being fast-tracked to provide service that will dock within around 1,000 feet of the Champlain Bridge. To that end, they noted that the required environmental impact documentation would be submitted to the appropriate federal agencies early this week, so that construction of new ferry docks could begin as soon as possible.
Lisa Cloutier, owner of the Bridge Restaurant, wants to see the new ferry and bridge operating as soon as possible. Her business has diminished greatly since the span closed Oct. 16.
“(The ferry) will help a lot,” Cloutier said. “We are on the road to nowhere right now. Why would you come down here if you can’t cross the bridge?”
She said it will be kind of sad to see the old bridge come down.
“I have mixed emotions,” Cloutier said. “It is a beautiful bridge and the restaurant is the silhouette of this. But if it had to come down because of safety reasons, I want a new bridge right here. It is bittersweet.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said she too has conflicting sentiments about the impending demolition of the old bridge.
“I am relieved we are moving forward, but at the same time we have a very historic monument here that … is a very important signature of Vermont,” said Lanpher, a member of the House Transportation Committee. “The sadness can’t be lost, even though we are getting some traction in the right direction for the bigger picture.”
A toll-free hotline for information about the bridge closure (1-888-769-7243) will remain open, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those calling from the 518 area code in New York may dial 518-485-1159. Further, regular e-mail updates are being sent to residents of both states who have signed up to receive them. These updates can be accessed by visiting the respective state transportation agency Web sites at www.lcbclosure.org in New York and www.aot.state.vt.us in Vermont.
The full engineering report on the condition of the Champlain Bridge was scheduled to be available at www.nysdot.gov and www.aot.state.vt.us late this week.

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