addison ferry dock
Nancy O'Brien - Approaching the free Champlain Ferry in West Addison, Vt. on April 24. nancy o'brien

A heavily trafficked bridge is taken out without warning.

State transportation officials scramble to put together a free, federally subsidized ferry service for the thousands of commuters left stranded.

But, despite the free service in place, a costly, multimillion-dollar construction project to build a new span moves forward. Officials say they never considered keeping the ferry service available in order to shuttle cars and trucks back and forth.

People want the bridge, they say.

That’s what happened in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged the St. Louis Bay Bridge, a two-lane span, the destruction of which by the storm created a 45-minute detour and literally divided a southwestern Mississippi town in two.

A seven-day-a-week ferry service was put in place with the help of the federal government. A project to rebuild the bridge, now a four-lane span, was put on the fast track.

In 2007, 20 months after the hurricane swept through the Gulf Coast, a new bridge was in place.

The success of the temporary ferry program in Mississippi was one that worked so well, it was studied by New York and Vermont transportation officials after the Lake Champlain bridge was closed and later demolished.

There are differences between the two cases.

The original St. Louis Bay Bridge was only a decade old when it was taken out by the storm. Mississippi officials had no plans on the shelf when Katrina battered the area.

The Lake Champlain Bridge, on the other hand, was a deteriorating structure that had been under scrutiny by a committee of engineers for at least two years before it was suddenly closed for safety reasons.

The project to build a new bridge between Vermont and New York is expected to cost about $69 million, while the far larger Mississippi bridge project cost $296 million.

The contract to construct the new span, which is being built by Colorada-based Flat Iron Corp., is still being reviewed by state transportation agencies and is expected to be approved by the end of May.

A spokesman for the company would not comment, saying the contract is still under review. 

But, in both cases, a ferry service was instituted only temporarily after a popular structure was suddenly deemed unsafe to use.

New York and Vermont officials announced on Oct. 16 the Lake Champlain Bridge would close immediately for safety reasons. A new structure would be constructed by 2011.

A permanent ferry service, officials in New York and Vermont say, was briefly considered, but ultimately rejected for both cost reasons and the convenience of commuters. 

As the Gulf Coast was rebuilding after Katrina, engineer Kelly Castleton was charged with the quick construction of a vital artery in his state.

“Our main focus, our goal, everything was attributed to getting a bridge replaced to the same place it was before,” said Castleton, the project engineer. “People are able to access it a lot quicker.”

Despite the replacement project being put on the fast track, Mississippi officials were able to secure a temporary ferry service, run seven days a week, for passenger cars to cross the bay.

When New York and Vermont took a look at the Mississippi project, they liked what they saw.

“They helped guide us,” said John Zicconi, a spokesman for the Vermont Transportation Agency.

So New York and Vermont developed a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week ferry service in the area.

The service attracts a minimum of about 1,800 cars a day traveling both ways. At its height in the summertime, officials expect it to take 3,500 cars a day across the lake.

While the service is “free” for drivers, Zicconi said New York and Vermont taxpayers pay about $10 per car, which means that building the bridge makes financial sense.

“If you do the math, we would be paying for the bridge hundreds of times over by keeping the ferry service unless you have a private operator run the ferry service,” he said.

All told, the service costs about $11 million a year.

“We’d pay for the bridge in six years,” Zicconi said. “It’s never been a question to us. There’s not a lot of cost-benefit analysis needed.”

The $69 million construction figure doesn’t factor in the cost of demolishing the old bridge or the cost of interest on bonds that will have to be issued to pay for it.

While the public saw the spectacular implosion of the bridge in December, the demolition work is still going on. Crews are removing debris and the underwater portions of the piers, which extend 100 feet down from the river bottom to bedrock.

While the final bills haven’t been paid or even received, New York officials estimate it will cost $8 million to finish dismantling the bridge.

When the states assembled a committee of local citizens in 2007 to review options for a new or rehabilitated bridge, a third choice was on the table: a permanent ferry service.

“We would have looked at other alternatives: rehabilitating the bridge, replacing the bridge at another location, or bridges in lieu of,” said John Grady, a regional construction engineer for state Department of Transportation. “One of things we had on the list was a ferry service. We didn’t get too far with that process and the dynamics of the situation changed.”

Events moved quickly after the bridge’s emergency closure last fall, and its replacement was put on a fast track.

Federal aid is paying for 80 percent of the cost of the new bridge. New York and Vermont will split the other 20 percent evenly.

“The ferry that we built and is operational now was done so with the distinct understanding that it would be a temporary ferry,” Grady said. “We cannot leave the ferry there forever. Right after we finish the bridge, we will take it out. There is no option for us to make it a permanent ferry.”

Meanwhile, the ferry service has provided a miniature job boom in the area.

“These are things the public doesn’t know — we hired 75 new employees because of the temporary ferry service,” said Heather Stewart, the operations director for Lake Champlain Transportation. “Many of our employees are brand new, live in the area and now have jobs with benefits. They are very happy to have a job.”

The ferry, which was once a fun, alternative way to cross the lake, has become vital to the thousands of commuters making the trek across the lake for work.

“I think it is an economic link between New York and Vermont,” Stewart said. “It’s very clear if you’re on the dock on a Monday through Friday morning, we’ve got the commuter traffic going through.”

Because of the increased traffic on the ferries, Lake Champlain Transportation plans to purchase a new $8 million boat, Stewart said.

“If we didn’t build a new boat, we would not have enough; we would have too many hours on our present service. We need another boat to swap out and rebuild engines,” she said.

The new ferry is due to arrive by October.

Tomorrow: How the design for the new bridge was chosen, and the ways it will be

an improvement over the old one.


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