By LOHR McKINSTRY
CROWN POINT — After an inspection showed it could collapse, the massive Champlain Bridge connecting New York and Vermont was closed indefinitely Friday afternoon.
Two of the bridge's concrete piers had significant erosion below the water line, State Department of Transportation Regional Structural Engineer Thomas Hoffman said.
"There was a fairly significant loss (of concrete)," Hoffman said at a press conference early Friday evening at the bridge.
"Under certain conditions we were afraid the bridge could fail abruptly."
The bridge was already restricted to one-lane traffic while structural steel repairs were being made.
Signs and barricades went up at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the entrances to the bridge in Crown Point and Chimney Point, Vt., and on the end of Bridge Road at Route 9N/22. Message boards were also placed on the Adirondack Northway.
Hoffman said DOT is working on solutions as fast as possible.
"We're going to be working as quickly as we can to reopen that bridge. We'd like to have it back open for winter before ice sets in."
He said since there's already a contractor there working on bridge repairs, it might be possible to just expand the scope of work to include repairs to the piers.
Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) was at the bridge, and said she's asked Gov. David Paterson to declare a state of emergency for the bridge. Such a declaration would enable more rapid repairs to be made, and might provide financial aid for those people who now need to take daily ferry trips to get to work.
Essex County Board of Supervisors Chair Cathy Moses (R-Schroon) declared a county state of emergency for the bridge Friday evening.
The sudden closing impacted the almost 4,000 drivers a day who cross the vital link between the two states.
Marion Sullivan of Vergennes, Vt., who owns Crown Point Discount Grocery with her husband, said their business, like many others, will be harmed by the closing.
"It's going to hurt us dearly. It will be devastating to our business. A lot of our traffic is Vermonters who come here and shop at our store as they're passing through.
"We live in Vermont, and it adds an extra two hours onto our trip," she added.
She said she'd be going home via the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry, which runs only from 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. and is slated to close for the season Oct. 31.
"The ferry isn't cheap. I called the DOT and said, 'How are we supposed to get home?' He said, 'We're sending people to Route 4 in Whitehall.' That's four hours longer."
The other alternative is the Essex-Charlotte Ferry, which now runs from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.
"It's going to be really hard," Sullivan said. "The DOT couldn't give me any time frame. Are we talking days, weeks or months? They didn't know."
DOT Region 1 Director Mary Ivey said she realizes the detour through Whitehall is extremely long.
"We're very, very aware of the challenges this is going to create for truckers, farmers, commuters. We concluded the risk was at an unacceptable level to keep the bridge open."
Little said a tragedy may have been averted by the closure of the bridge.
"I was told that the piers can be repaired, but was not provided a timeline as to when it will happen. I will push for an answer. Right now, I am in the process of reaching out to local elected officials to discuss with them their ideas to ensure the needs of travelers, especially those that rely on crossing the bridge daily, can be accommodated as best as possible until the repairs are made."
Crown Point Town Supervisor Dale French said he hopes this will speed up the repair or replacement process, but the short-term effect of the closing still needs to be addressed.
"It's going to be horrible. Farmers are still cutting corn over here. I've been saying for three years they were going to close it."
He noted the ferries add significant time to the trip.
"There are no good alternatives here," French said.
Essex County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said many emergency vehicles use the bridge daily.
"There are ambulances going to Fletcher Allen Health Care and Porter Medical Center (in Middlebury), and fire departments provide mutual aid from both sides. There could be lives at stake here."
Representatives of both Lake Champlain Transportation, which owns the Essex-Charlotte Ferry, and the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry said they're working on plans to increase hours and service.
Ticonderoga Town Supervisor Robert C. Dedrick said the owners of the Ticonderoga Ferry are putting in temporary lights so they can run the ferry after dark.
Motorist Craig Jackson said he was stuck in traffic waiting to board the Essex-Charlotte Ferry.
"There is significant traffic congestion in Essex due to the Champlain Bridge closure. Tractor trailers and other vehicles are backed up on both sides of Main Street/Route 22 awaiting ferry boarding."
Dedrick said traffic was also backed up for a considerable distance at both sides of the Ticonderoga Ferry.
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