Those hurt by closure of bridge take stock

ADDISON, Vt./CROWN POINT, N.Y. — At 1 p.m. this Saturday afternoon, two ferries on Lake Champlain will sound their horns for a crowd of people gathered at the Crown Point Historical Site.
The horn blasts will mark the one-year anniversary of the emergency closure of the Champlain Bridge, an event that plunged area businesses into months of struggle and wreaked havoc for the hundreds of people who daily commute across the lake.
The gathering, which will kick off as the horns sound, will bring together legislators and community members from both sides of the lake not only to commemorate the 12 months of hardship caused by the bridge closure but also to lift each others’ spirits and look forward to next fall when a replacement bridge is scheduled to be in place.
“It’s a look ahead to what we have coming,” said Lorraine Franklin, a member of the Lake Champlain Bridge Coalition and the owner with her husband, Dana, of the West Addison General Store and Champ’s Trading Post. They are but two of the many businesses that have felt the impact of the unexpected closure of the 80-year-old Champlain Bridge on Oct. 16, 2009, due to concern about its structural soundness and its ultimate demolition in late December.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, will speak at Saturday’s event, as will New York assemblywoman Teresa Sayward of Willsboro. Karen Hennessy, another member of the Lake Champlain Bridge Coalition, said that the organization’s “corridor poet” — Jean Arleen Breed, who commutes from New York to Vermont for work — will be reading two of her poems at the event.
The Lake Champlain Bridge Coalition has also invited the project manager and workers from Flatiron Construction, the company that is building the bridge. Franklin said that there will be an opportunity for those at the event to meet the workers who are building the bridge.
“It’s a welcome for them,” she said. “They’ll be around until next December — we want them to be a part of the community.”
Franklin said she hoped the event would serve as a reminder of the strong community that has kept area businesses afloat, and offer an opportunity to gear up for the year ahead.
“We’re hoping that it will keep us all connected, and celebrate that we’re all together still.
Businesses haven’t gone under, and we’ve survived,” she said.
The struggle is not over, though. Franklin said that, even with the business the temporary ferry and the construction workers are bringing back to the area, the gift shop at Champ’s Trading Post saw many fewer customers this summer than it had in years past.
Hennessy and her husband own the Sugar Hill Manor Bed and Breakfast in Crown Point, and she agreed that the eight-year-old business had seen busier days.
“(Business) is not like it’s been before,” she said.
The lack of a bridge doesn’t just affect the businesses right around the bridge.
“I used to send (guests) to Middlebury and they would come back with bags and bags,” Hennessy said.
But this summer, many of her clients were more reluctant to deal with the schedules and long lines involved in taking the ferry. Combine this with the general economic decline and less willingness by the public to spend money on travel and shopping, and Hennessy said it’s not hard to see why businesses have taken a hard hit.
“With the economy so bad, we didn’t need to not have a bridge,” she said.
Still, those who commute across the lake every day have settled into a routine that will carry them through to next fall, when the bridge is scheduled to open.
Alexa Euler, who works in human resources at Middlebury College, said the estimated 20 to 25 college employees who commute from New York daily still spend longer on their commute than before the bridge was closed.
“A typical workday is half an hour to an hour longer, depending on where they live,” said Euler. “That’s not insignificant.”
She said the college administration has been doing its best to accommodate the needs of employees who have seen longer lines at the ferries and erratic commute times.
Mike Moser works as assistant director of facilities management at the college, and commutes from Ticonderoga, N.Y.
He said that the temporary ferry that started in January has become a much easier routine, compared with his two other options: waiting for hours in line for the much smaller Ticonderoga ferry or driving south through Whitehall, N.Y., and Fair Haven, Vt.
“It was a struggle coming through the waning months of 2009, and in January of 2010,” said Moser. “But (now) we’ve all adapted.”
Still, Moser said he is ready for the new bridge to open.
“Oh, without a doubt,” he said.
People who commute across the lake are gearing up for another year on the ferry. Flatiron Construction has until Oct. 9, 2011, to open the bridge to traffic — with incentives for finishing earlier — and until Dec. 31, 2011, to wrap up the entire project.
Since construction began in June, Flatiron has been working on the approaches and the seven support piers that span the lake bed. Once the support piers are in, work can begin on the concrete piers that will support the bridge structure.
Carol Breen, public information officer at the New York State Department of Transportation, said Flatiron plans to continue work over the winter. The actual arch that will feature prominently in the new bridge will be constructed offsite and moved in next summer, after which point the bridge will be close to completion.
“We are on schedule at this point,” Breen said. “We expect to be opening to traffic next September.”
After Saturday, Franklin said her attention will turn to planning a celebration for the new bridge opening event next fall, and to bringing people back to the area after that.
For now, though, she is looking forward to Saturday’s event as a time for all those affected by the bridge closure to come together and celebrate the halfway point.
“It’s kind of a morale boost for next year,” she said. “Everyone’s feeling a little bit beat after the summer.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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