March 22, 2013

Editorial: Throwback ferry still meets needs


---- — Monday’s Press-Republican Lookback was a reminder of how long, how hard and how futilely people have been fighting for a Lake Champlain bridge at Plattsburgh.

The truth is that we have reliable and relatively fast ferry transportation across the lake, and that’s very likely to be all we’ll ever have.

The Lookback item recalled that, 50 years ago, the Lake Champlain Bridge Commission declined to take the initiative for construction of a third bridge across the lake.

The third bridge has always been envisioned as a closer link between the two main cities of the region: Plattsburgh in New York and Burlington in Vermont. The other two bridges span the lake from Rouses Point and Crown Point.

Proponents of the third bridge have argued for decades that the pace of life has sped up to the point at which ferries were no longer adequate and that cheaper access is needed.

In the 1970s, Plattsburgh Mayor Roland St. Pierre commissioned a study into the feasibility of a bridge, and it found the lake bottom insufficient to anchor a bridge. St. Pierre then ordered inquiries into a floating bridge that would ride on the lake surface. That option was deemed too expensive to pursue.

Since then, various citizens, some with official sanction, have urged other answers, such as a toll bridge, since neither New York nor Vermont — nor the federal government — was interested in funding a bridge.

The toll bridge — if indeed engineers could overcome the obstacles found in the St. Pierre years — was expected to require a fee double that charged by the ferry company for a crossing. For all practical purposes, that killed any chance the bridge had.

Still, many people continue to argue for a third bridge leaving from Plattsburgh. A desire for easier commutes and dissatisfaction with ferry price increases have contributed to that sentiment.

First formed in 1826 as the Champlain Transportation Com., the ferry service was owned by various people and corporations until 1948, when it was rechristened Lake Champlain Transportation Co.

In 1976, it launched ice breakers that could run year-round. Motorists no longer had to drive up to Rouses Point and down Vermont Interstate 89 to reach Burlington after the lake froze over.

In 1999, it introduced 24-hour service across Grand Isle, so there is seldom a need to take the time-consuming route across the Rouses Point Bridge to get to Burlington.

The ferry trip takes about 15 minutes to get onto the boat, cross the lake and get off, not counting wait time, which is usually not more than five or 10 minutes. That’s scarcely more than a car would take crossing a bridge.

Bridge proponents have always insisted politics has been at play in keeping the ferries afloat. But, the main reasons the bridge won’t be built are actually the prohibitive cost and unproven need.