Noted designer sees span as homecoming

MIDDLEBURY — Thousands of eyes will be fixed on the massive, 402-foot-long center span and arch when it makes its two-mile trek by barge from Port Henry, N.Y., to fill what is now a gaping hole in the framework of the new bridge spanning Lake Champlain from Addison, Vt., to Crown Point, N.Y.
None of those eyes will be focused more intently on the dramatic scene than those of Ted Zoli, designer of the new, $70 million Lake Champlain bridge that is being targeted for completion this fall — just two years after the previous span was closed due to structural deterioration.
Zoli, vice president and technical director for the international engineering firm HNTB Corp., took some time on Monday to share his thoughts with the Addison Independent as construction of the span hits the homestretch. He will speak on the history and construction of the Champlain Bridge at a benefit talk this Sunday afternoon at Camp Dudley in Westport, N.Y.
In the interview, Zoli listed the new Champlain bridge as being one of the “top five” most important of the more than 50 spans he has designed thus far during an eventful career. He ranked it so highly in part because of the challenges of the building site, the accelerated construction timetable requested by both states, and the need to create a structure that was utilitarian, durable and aesthetically pleasing enough to fit into one of the most scenic locations in the Champlain Valley.
“The character of the bridge has to live up to the site,” Zoli said during a phone interview from his New York City office.
“It was a pretty stunning place to have to design a bridge.”
It was an assignment that Zoli, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” did not take lightly. He grew up in the Schroon Lake area of New York, just south of Ticonderoga, where Zoli developed a love for the Adirondacks, visible as part of the Champlain Bridge’s backdrop.
“There’s something magical about that setting,” Zoli said.
It is a magic that Zoli and a team of 25 to 30 associate engineers and architects sought to honor when they immediately set to work after learning that HNTB had won the design contract, soon after the original 80-year-old Champlain Bridge was closed on Oct. 16, 2009.
“It felt like being back in college,” Zoli quipped of a series of seven-day workweeks sprinkled with occasional all-nighters. Public officials were keen to quickly replace the key transportation infrastructure.
The team produced six different designs, including a long-span steel girder bridge, a segmental concrete bridge, a steel composite cable-stayed bridge, a concrete extradosed bridge, a network tied arch bridge, and a modified network tied arch bridge.
Transportation officials from Vermont and New York asked the public to vote on their preferred design of the six. Thousands of tallies garnered at public meetings and in an on-line survey showed the modified network tied arch bridge was the overwhelming favorite.
The new bridge design, Zoli said, attempts to pay homage to its predecessor — designed by the Boston engineering firm of Fay, Spofford and Thorndike in 1927 — while incorporating new elements aimed at enhancing the durability of the structure. One of those new elements: Crossing arch cables.
Zoli said he was shocked and gratified by the number of people who weighed in on the Champlain Bridge designs. He said surveys on other bridge designs with which he had been involved never garnered more than a few hundred comments.
“It shows the importance of this project,” Zoli said, citing in particular the span’s key role as a conduit for people commuting to jobs on both sides of the lake and the vital role those commuters play in supporting area businesses. When the Champlain Bridge first closed almost two years ago, hundreds of people suddenly faced lengthy detours or long lines at ferry services to get to jobs in Addison County at such businesses as Porter Medical Center, Middlebury College and Goodrich Corp.
With people’s livelihoods at stake, speed was of the essence, Zoli recalled.
“It was an emergency on a lot of fronts,” Zoli said.
Greatly helping matters was the unprecedented speed with which the project made its way through the necessary state and federal permitting processes, according to Zoli.
“This bridge has broken all kinds of records getting through environmental permitting,” Zoli said, and did so, he added, “without shortchanging” the review process.
And there were some complex factors to consider during permitting, Zoli noted — not the least of which where sites on both sides of the bridge rich with artifact from the Revolutionary War and earlier.
“Either side (of the lake) would have been the most important architectural site I’ve ever worked on, in terms of a bridge,” Zoli said.
Another challenge was building the new bridge along the alignment of the old one. This led to some problems when the builder, Flatiron Construction, encountered debris from the former, imploded bridge while drilling some of the 32 shafts in the lakebed for the new span.
Also posing some headaches, according to Zoli, were the very soft soil conditions on both sides of the lake, which made it difficult to embed support structures for the new bridge.
Add to that gusting winds, a particularly brutal 2010-2011 winter, and record flooding this past spring, and you have a recipe for major delays. New York State Department of Transportation officials have granted Flatiron Construction a 65-day extension beyond the targeted completion date of Oct. 9 in recognition of the weather. At the same time, Flatiron has marshaled additional equipment and manpower on site to try and expedite work to meet the original timetable.
“Flatiron has done a good job navigating through the challenges,” Zoli said. “I think we are mostly on schedule, headed for a mid-October completion.”
Designing the Champlain Bridge, Zoli said, has been “a great privilege.”
True to form, Zoli has moved on to a half-dozen other projects. They include a designing a 395-foot-long wooden pedestrian span in Brooklyn (N.Y.) Bridge Park and a rail bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey.
He has established himself a leader in post-9/11 efforts to design new bridges — and retrofit older ones — with architectural elements and material to better withstand blasts, fires and natural disasters. Zoli said the new Champlain Bridge has been designed with such care.
“The safest bridges are the ones that can tolerate damage,” Zoli said.
Zoli continues to be one of the most sought-after designers of transportation infrastructure in the country, a skill that he says is in his DNA. His father and grandfather were in the business of building roads, and he developed an interest in bridges as an extension of that vocation.
“Bridges … probably provide the best opportunity for a structural engineer to explore forms,” Zoli said.
Ted Zoli will speak on the history and construction of the Champlain Bridge at a benefit talk on Sunday, Aug. 21, at 1 p.m. at the Witherbee Auditorium at Camp Dudley in Westport, N.Y. The event will benefit Literacy Volunteers of Essex/Franklin Counties. Admission will be $15 for single admission and $25 for two. For more information, log on to
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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