Press-Republican

November 9, 2009

Champlain Bridge can't be repaired

By LOHR McKINSTRY

ADDISON, Vt. — The ultimate bad news for users of the shuttered Champlain Bridge came Monday, when the historic span was declared unrepairable.

At a hastily called press conference on the Vermont side of the bridge, New York State Department of Transportation Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee said that incline cracks in the concrete bridge pillars are so severe the span is in jeopardy of collapsing into Lake Champlain.

Gee said the Crown Point bridge will be demolished and a new span built on its footprint, but he had no timetable yet for those actions.



‘TOO DANGEROUS’

Complete underwater inspections of the bridge’s pillars just concluded, he said, and the report that was issued was not good.

“It’s the recommendation that this 80-year-old bridge cannot be rehabilitated. The bridge is unsafe for motorists. It’s also unstable. We’re recommending that this bridge be torn down.”

The bridge was closed Oct. 16 after a preliminary underwater inspection showed cracks in the bottoms of two pillars. A complete inspection using divers was then ordered; it was completed at the end of October.

DOT Chief Engineer Robert Dennison said the final inspection report was alarming.

“I can’t ensure that the bridge is not subject to sudden collapse. The foundations were constructed in the 1920s of unreinforced concrete. It’s too dangerous to work around and too dangerous to repair.”



DEMOLITION SOON

Eighteen inches of concrete is eroded from some of the piers below the water line, the report said, and there are large cracks extending through the supports.

Dennison said demolition should start quickly because ice conditions around the piers this winter could weaken them further.

The closest alternate land route around the bridge is a two-hour detour through Whitehall.

Ferries operating between Essex and Charlotte, Vt., and Ticonderoga and Shoreham, Vt., are now free, with the states picking up the cost.

An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 vehicles a day used the bridge, and 1,500 New York state residents had jobs in Vermont when the bridge closed.



DIG WRAPPING UP

Work to establish a free, 24-hour ferry next to the existing bridge is continuing with an archeological dig of the proposed site that concludes today.

A crew is also doing test borings of the lake bed where the ferry docks would be placed to ensure the soil can support the weight.

Gee said the temporary ferry at the bridge could be operational in a month.

He said they will try to streamline the process of building a new bridge.

“We’re moving as quickly as we can.”

He said they have, so far, taken a year off the construction timetable. The bridge had already been scheduled for repair or replacement in 2013.



CONSTRUCTION COST

A new bridge could cost about $50 million, Gee said. The federal government would pay 80 percent, and New York and Vermont would split the rest of the cost.

Vermont Secretary of Transportation David Dill agreed that a new bridge should be built as quickly as possible.

“The bridge closure significantly disrupted communities on both sides of the lake. The fastest way to return families, businesses and farms back to normal is to quickly provide them with a new bridge.”

Gee said he didn’t know if a new bridge would be steel, concrete or a combination of both.

“When we get further along the design process, we’ll know that.”

Crown Point Supervisor-elect Bethany Kosmider said she’d been briefed earlier in the day by DOT officials on the bridge findings.

“I’m pleased they’re moving forward with a plan that seems to be viable.”



DOT DEFENDED

Gee defended the DOT from critics who say regular bridge inspections and maintenance were not performed and could have saved the span.

“Our vigorous bridge-inspection program gave us the information to close this bridge.”

Dennison said the Champlain Bridge deteriorated significantly since the last underwater inspection four years ago.

A $1 million project to replace corroded steel on the bridge was just concluding when the pillar cracks and erosion were discovered.



E-mail Lohr McKinstry at:

lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com