ADDISON — Vermont transportation officials have declared an emergency in an effort to leverage more federal assistance in fixing the Champlain Bridge and in developing short-term solutions in getting commuters across Lake Champlain between Addison County, Vt., and Essex County, N.Y.
Vermont Transportation Secretary David Dill announced the emergency declaration at a press conference in Middlebury on Tuesday, five days after New York and Vermont authorities closed the Champlain Bridge when an inspection revealed substantial concrete deterioration to two of the span’s 12 piers.
Dill and other state officials present at Tuesday’s meeting said further inspections during the next few weeks should produce more information on the extent of the bridge damage and possible fixes to get it back open. In the meantime, Dill said the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the New York Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) are looking at some stopgap measures to get people across the lake, including an additional ferry service that could accommodate more vehicles — including large trucks.
Commuters must now either take the Fort Ti Ferry at Shoreham, Vt., or the Charlotte, Vt.-Essex, N.Y. ferry, or make the very long detour south of the lake through Whitehall, N.Y. Large trucks have no choice but to make that detour because the ferries can’t accommodate them.
Meanwhile, owners of the Basin Harbor Resort in Ferrisburgh announced they will offer a pedestrian ferry from their docks to Westport, N.Y., beginning Monday, Oct. 26. They will be ferried on the Escape, a 45-foot modified lobster hull normally used for day cruises with the resort’s guests. It holds up to 48 passengers and Basin Harbor Resort co-owners Bob and Pennie Beach anticipate they will be full as they do their 6, 7 and 8 a.m. runs, as well as the 3, 4 and 5 p.m. afternoon runs across the lake. The fee is $8 round-trip, per passenger.
“Clearly, the Agency of Transportation understands the seriousness of this situation on commuters, businesses, emergency services, and we are committed to working toward solutions as quickly as possible and keeping people informed of those developments,” Dill said. “As a result, in accordance with state statutes, I have declared an emergency with (the Federal Highway Administration), for project purposes, in order to expedite both state and federal processes for contracting and permitting as necessary, and to give us the flexibility with funding from the Transportation Bill of last session, as we need it.”
Dill acknowledged, however, that VTrans and the Federal Highway Administration don’t have resources to defray business losses or extra commuter expenses being incurred by stores and travelers who all of a sudden have to circumvent the 80-year-old span. The Champlain Bridge had been accommodating an average of 3,400 vehicles per day, many of them driven by upstate New Yorkers working at Addison County businesses like Porter Medical Center, Middlebury College, Goodrich Corp. and J.P. Carrara & Sons.
“Our intent is not only to inform folks of the latest developments, but also to work with businesses on ideas to ease the burdens of commuters,” Dill said.
The Champlain Bridge (also known as the Crown Point Bridge) is owned jointly by Vermont and New York, but the Empire State is taking the lead in its maintenance and possible replacement, which was slated to begin in 2013. But Dill stressed that Vermont is not letting New York oversee the structure on its own.
“I want to make clear that the fact that New York is taking the lead on this project doesn’t mean that VTrans is sitting idly by, just waiting to see what happens,” Dill said.
AID TO COMMUTERS
VTrans officials outlined a series of possible options to help commuters while the bridge is closed, including:
• Installing a temporary bridge or a pontoon span in the vicinity of the Champlain Bridge. But Dill cautioned that a temporary bridge would likely require the placement of piers — which he said would be no quick task — and a floating pontoon bridge would impede boat travel in the area.
• Collaborating with Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) on a park-and-ride system through which commuters would park on the New York side and cross on the ferries as pedestrians, whereupon ACTR buses could pick them up and take them to job sites like Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center and the Exchange Street industrial park in Middlebury.
“We are currently gathering information from employers to determine volume, shift times, etc. and also determining logistical details, such as length of time and potential route,” said ACTR Executive Director James Moulton. “Once we have our info gathered — hopefully within one or two days — we will then provide cost estimates to VTrans and employers for evaluation since, as I understand it, this is only one solution option under consideration.”
• Adding an additional ferry, one that could handle heavy trucks and offer (with federal subsidy) service at a low fee, or maybe even no fee. Dill said transportation officials are currently evaluating some potential ferry landing sites with Lake Champlain Transportation, the company that runs the Charlotte ferry, to assess the logistics of accommodating the necessary infrastructure and parking.
John Zicconi, director of planning, outreach and community affairs for VTrans, noted that Fort Ticonderoga Ferry owners Michael and Alison Matot own ferry rights within a 10-mile radius of their Shoreham operation, including at the Champlain Bridge. As such, they would have to be brought into negotiations for any new ferry within that radius.
Dill said VTrans will soon create a Web site to post Champlain Bridge-related information and updates. He added VTrans and the NYSDOT will hold some public meetings about the bridge either late this week, or next week.
WHY THE SUDDEN CLOSURE?
Those meetings are likely to be attended by many Vermonters and New Yorkers who continue to wonder why the bridge was closed so suddenly, and without warning. The abrupt Oct. 16 decision came just more than a week after an Oct. 8 forum at the Addison Central School at which NYSDOT officials gave a potential timetable for a long-range rehab or replacement of the span. They gave no indication that the Champlain Bridge — limited to one-lane traffic since July 3 — was poised to close completely.
Danny Landry, project manager for the structures division for VTrans, said the pier damage that forced the bridge closure was discovered only recently by NYSDOT inspectors.
“The water levels fluctuate,” Landry said. “Where you get your problems is right at the lake level, with ice action. “During the wintertime, the water level is lower and the ice works on the piers. What was happening is that the concrete, all the way around the pier at water level, was spalling off.”
Landry said that inspectors noticed this spalling — or erosion — during a previous review of the piers. But that erosion was in the order of five inches at the time. On Oct. 16, that erosion had worsened to 18 inches, he said.
“It was decided immediately … that we had to close the bridge,” Landry said.
Piers five and eight are the ones in which damage has been detected. Officials suspect the damage may also extend to piers six and seven. The exact extent of damage is expected to be known within the next two weeks, according to Dill.
“We don’t want to give a timetable (for repair) because we don’t know how severe the problem is,” Landry said.
Dill said it is too soon to tell whether the pier problems and Oct. 16 closure of the bridge will expedite the timetable for its wholesale renovation or replacement.
Gov. James Douglas sees at least the potential for such a scenario.
“Depending on the extent of the damage, long-term planning which VTrans is hard at work on now could include a temporary bridge or possibly a federal earmark for emergency funds to repair or replace the existing bridge,” Douglas said in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.
Some affected commuters have suggested that the Champlain Bridge would greatly benefit from federal stimulus money. But transportation officials noted that stimulus money is being earmarked for “shovel-ready” projects, and the Champlain bridge does not yet fit into that category.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is among several area lawmakers who have been fielding concerns from businesses and commuters who depend on the bridge for their livelihood.
“We are looking at what we can do to bring pressure or services or funding,” said Lanpher, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. “We are dealing with four separate crises at the moment. We have a structural crisis of the bridge itself, which New York and VTrans are working with. We are also very aware we have a commuter crisis … We also have a commerce crisis down there — industries and shop owners that are going to go under soon, if we do not respond. And we are also going to have an emergency management services crisis, with being able to get health care and access to our hospitals.”
Dill said divers and other inspectors will spend the next several days combing the bridge, performing various tests to shape how New York and Vermont respond to the crisis.
“We are anxiously looking forward to the results of that,” Dill said.