ADDISON — Around 200 people filled the Addison Central School gym on Tuesday to plead for a new lake crossing near the now-closed Champlain Bridge, a task they said New York and Vermont transportation officials should have accomplished many days ago.
But transportation officials from both sides of the lake were not able to do much to assuage the concerns of frustrated residents. Many of those in attendance have been contending with 100-mile detours through Whitehall, N.Y., or waits for ferry service since the Champlain Bridge closed on Oct. 16 due to substantial erosion found in two of the 80-year-old span’s 11 concrete piers.
New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) officials announced free ferry and bus services to get commuters to and from jobs in Addison County, but served notice that necessary pier reinforcement work that will enable the Champlain Bridge to reopen will not be done before next spring or summer.
Moreover, they said it appears as though the lake depth, historic preservation concerns and a danger of the Champlain Bridge collapsing may preclude a temporary span or heavy-duty ferry from being staged at or near the current location. Robert A. Dennison, senior engineer with the NYSDOT, said authorities are currently scouting the feasibility of a temporary span from Chipman’s Point (Vt.) to Wright’s Ferry Road (N.Y.), a location around three miles south of Ticonderoga, N.Y. and a full 15 miles south of the Champlain Bridge. There is around a 1,200-foot gap between the two points, according to Dennison.
He stressed, however, that the NYSDOT is not putting all its temporary bridge options in one basket.
“It may change — especially after tonight,” Dennison said of the temporary bridge location, given the public outcry at the meeting.
That outcry was impassioned and often punctuated by loud applause. Many of those at the meeting said New York and Vermont authorities must look to quickly re-establish a crossing near the Champlain Bridge or risk losing businesses that depend on pass-by traffic. Representatives of the Bridge Restaurant, Pratt’s Store and the West Addison Store, among others, reinforced that point.
“A (crossing near the bridge) is totally doable,” said Jeff Provost, owner of Ferrisburgh-based Dock Doctors, another lake-area business that has been suffering since Oct. 16. “We have seen a huge representation of bureaucracy at this meeting. If you want to represent us, get us back and forth across the lake where that bridge is now.”
John Sullivan, owner of Crown Point Discount Grocery, agreed.
“The bureaucracy, from what I can see, is missing the message,” Sullivan said. “We need that corridor restored at the bridge. We should have had a temporary bridge … within days.”
Sullivan, who lives in Vergennes, also voiced concerns that his and other businesses might not be able to survive until Champlain Bridge pier work next spring or summer.
“I’m going to be history,” Sullivan said.
Other citizens at Tuesday’s meeting questioned why the NYSDOT — which has maintenance responsibilities for the Champlain Bridge — is not moving immediately to use federal stimulus money replace the 80-year-old span at an estimated cost of $50 million to $60 million.
“This is like a horse that has gotten too old and you can’t drive it anymore,” Addison resident Paul Boivin said of the bridge.
Vermont Transportation Secretary David Dill responded that states must follow a specific review process for bridge and other major transportation projects to qualify for federal funding. It’s a process that must consider, among other things, alternatives to outright replacement (such as rehabbing the existing bridge) as well as environmental and historic factors on the site.
“You don’t follow the process, you don’t get the federal dollars,” Dill said.
Officials added that projects must be “shovel-ready” in order to qualify for stimulus funds. Planning for the Champlain Bridge, they said, is in the “scoping” phase, and therefore not shovel-ready.
But some residents weren’t buying the argument that a bridge solution is being delayed by finances and/or permitting issues. Bridport resident Rob Hunt said that construction crews built the Champlain Bridge in 14 months 80 years ago. He and others urged the states’ Congressional delegations to find the money and expedite the process of restoring traffic.
Failure to move quickly, some residents argued, would prompt people to risk driving across the frozen lake at times when it might not be safe, thereby putting people’s lives in danger.
“We didn’t come here to hear what won’t work; we came here to hear what you’re going to do,” Hunt said.
Dana Franklin, co-owner of the West Addison General Store, said he has become discouraged by the lack of action he has seen from state government regarding the bridge.
“I’ve kind of lost faith in our government doing the right thing,” said Franklin, who has had to lay off several of his store workers since the bridge closed.
“We want our area to survive,” he added. “For people up here, that artery is our livelihood.”
Meanwhile, transportation officials announced some interim solutions aimed at helping get commuters across or around the lake. Those solutions, which took effect this week, include:
• Free Ferry Service. Both New York and Vermont officials have reached an agreement with Lake Champlain Transportation to subsidize free ferry service for passenger vehicles, motorcycles, buses, fuel trucks and standard-width agricultural vehicles — including dairy trucks — crossing the lake between Essex, N.Y. and Charlotte. The two states also reached an agreement with the operator of the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry to offer free service between Ticonderoga, N.Y. and Shoreham.
• A new, free express commuter bus service between two parking locations in New York and three major Addison County employers: Porter Medical Center, Middlebury College and Goodrich Corp. The two-hour bus trips run Monday through Friday, with morning pick-ups and evening drop-offs occurring at the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry site and the boat launch on Dock Lane in Port Henry. Buses leave New York at 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. each morning and leave Vermont at 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. each evening.
• A shuttle bus service operated by Essex County Transit and Addison County Transit Resources that will move people from several park-and-ride locations set up in New York, and the ferries. Routes are expected to include Crown Point and Ticonderoga in New York and the B.F. Goodrich plant in Vermont.
Vermont and New York officials continue to explore additional ferry service options — including an expanded vehicle ferry service that could accommodate trucks at the Ticonderoga Ferry location.
The prospect of an expanded Ticonderoga Ferry is already generating some concerns in Shoreham and Orwell, which could suddenly see a dramatic bump in traffic, not to mention larger vehicles, on their rural roads.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said the Orwell and Shoreham selectboards have met to discuss a possible response to the prospect of a larger ferry operation — capable of operating through ice — and how that could affect traffic volume, Route 73 and Route 74 road conditions and the safety of some young students who walk to school. There are no crosswalks or sidewalks on Route 74.
“Route 74 is ill-equipped to handle semi-trucks, because there are at least three, if not four, right-angle turns that they can’t negotiate without going into another lane or off the road,” Stevens said. “Right now, Route 74 is limited maintenance during the winter and Route 73 is a town-owned (Orwell) road. We have rescue and fire concerns because of extra traffic.”
Stevens said Orwell and Shoreham selectmen are drafting a letter to state authorities outlining local concerns and how they would have to be addressed to allow for a ferry expansion in Shoreham.