New bridge, ferry tab could add up to $110 million

VERGENNES — Designing the replacement for the Champlain Bridge will involve a literal, as well as figurative balancing act, according to officials from HNTB, the firm commissioned by the state of New York to plan the new structure.
The new bridge will have to be wide enough to better accommodate vehicles, pedestrians and bikers, but not so wide that it triggers more intensive permitting requirements, HNTB Vice President Ted Zoli told more than 60 area residents who showed up in Vergennes on Monday evening for an overview of how the span will take shape.
And it’s a structure that must also be built quickly and cost-effectively, Zoli said, but not at the expense of architectural amenities that will allow the bridge to be more easily maintained while giving it its own identity.
“Everyone is going to have to give in a little bit to meet the schedule we have set,” Zoli told the crowd of Vermonters, New Yorkers, farmers, boaters, small business owners and commuters, all of whom are hoping to have a voice in the design of the new span.
“I think we’ll get close to what everyone wants.”
Zoli and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) officials gave residents an opportunity to state their bridge “wants” at Monday’s meeting at the Addison County Eagles Club. The NYSDOT will be accepting feedback on preferences from among six possible bridge options through Jan. 11, after which authorities will pick a leading design to move to final design.
Transportation officials acknowledged that a preferred design is already becoming clear, based on more than 3,600 votes by the public: A “modified, network tied arch” span that supporters believe recreates a modernistic version of the old Champlain Bridge.
The modified, network tied arch design has garnered a 70-percent favorability rating in on-line polling, according to NYSDOT officials. The other five designs include a long-span steel girder bridge; a segmental concrete bridge; a steel composite cable-stayed bridge; a concrete extradosed bridge and a network tied arch bridge.
Zoli said he and his colleagues will adhere to some basic principles about whatever bridge design moves forward — it will have to meet modern design codes; require less maintenance and inspection; have an enhanced service life (of up to 150 years); and be safer than the original Champlain Bridge, which lasted 80 years but had to be closed abruptly on Oct. 16 due to safety concerns.
Zoli added that the new bridge will also be designed to have 75-foot clearance (at high water mark) for high-masted vessels that will sail beneath it. Plans call for it to have at least 17-foot vertical clearance for vehicles that travel across it.
Engineers are considering a bridge deck that will be a little more than 50 feet wide, up from the approximately 30-foot-wide deck on the old span that provided considerable challenges to pedestrians and large farm vehicles.
At this point, planners are shooting for a deck with lanes that are 11-feet wide. Plans also call for shoulders and sidewalks that are five feet wide, according to Zoli.
“I think we will get through the permitting process unscathed with these widths,” Zoli said.
He acknowledged that while it would be nice to have wider lanes and sidewalks, to do so would be to potentially trifle with historic preservation permitting rules that could substantially delay the project. Zoli noted that the span will link two sites of “incredible cultural resources.”
“We need to minimize the width of the bridge so as not to disturb these cultural resources,” Zoli said, adding that under today’s rules, a new span would never have been allowed at the current site.
John Zicconi, director Planning, Outreach & Community Affairs for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), agreed with the strategy of sticking as close to the current bridge footprint as possible in order to expedite permitting.
“The narrower we can make (the bridge) … is really the path of least resistance,” Zicconi said. “This is a very sensitive place to build a bridge.”
Vergennes residents John and Marion Sullivan — owners of the Crown Point Discount Grocery in New York — said New York and Vermont should avoid any potential permitting problems in getting a new bridge built. They noted they and other merchants who have depended on bridge-related traffic are losing business every day the crossing is out of commission.
“Money is tight and time is of the essence,” Marion Sullivan told planners, adding she would vote for the long-span steel girder bridge design, the one that planners have said would be the least costly and quickest to build.
“Why spend more time and money on a bridge that is more beautiful?” she said.
Deb Collins of Burlington disagreed.
“If this bridge is to last 120 years, why not have something more aesthetically pleasing and sound?” she asked.
Farmers in the audience lobbied for a deck that would provide as wide a berth as possible for large agricultural vehicles. Some Vermont farmers rent fields across the lake in New York and have used the bridge to get to crops.
Bob Smith is one of those farmers. He said he has had some scary encounters in his 16-foot-wide corn planter with some motorists “who do not want to give you and inch.”
Bob Boivin, also an Addison farmer, echoed that sentiment.
“Our farm equipment is not getting smaller; it’s getting bigger,” he said.
“I have never eaten a car with my combine and I don’t want to.”
Boivin and others suggested the new bridge be planned in a way that creates a separate pedestrian/bike crossing underneath the deck.
Zoli said such a change would complicate and therefore delay the construction timetable, which tentatively calls for the new span to open during the summer of 2011.
One of the advantages of the leading bridge design is that it would allow for a large section of the bridge to be constructed off-site, then floated to the location by barge and hoisted into place by a massive crane, according to Zoli.
Vermont and New York authorities are now turning their attention to financing the bridge project. Zicconi estimated the total cost at $110 million, a figure that includes the costs of the bridge, the temporary ferry and the ferry’s operating costs. The federal government is expected to pay 80 percent of the costs (barring a larger percentage that could come from a Congressional earmark). Vermont and New York would be responsible for 10 percent each. The bridge costs, Zicconi said, could be spread over three fiscal years.
He and Zoli said they don’t anticipate any toll for the bridge, which at one time had such a charge.
Since the price tag includes the ferry service, it is in the states’ best interest to get the new bridge built as soon as possible, Zicconi noted. He added the two states would not be able to afford to build the new span without federal money and are therefore bound to whatever rules and restrictions might come down from Washington, D.C.
That news did not settle well with state Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes.
“What an insult it is that the federal government can hold us at bay for any reason,” Clark said.
Zicconi said the public can expect the two transportation departments to announce the final choice of design soon after the public comment period closes on Jan. 11.

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