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Workers repair the cement supports of the Crown Point bridge (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Workers repair the cement supports of the Crown Point bridge (Photo: Brian Mann)

Lake Champlain bridge in worse shape than believed, fix could take years

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One of the most important land crossings between Northern New York and Vermont is in worse shape than once believed. According to transportation officials from New York, some of the most important steel girders and cement pilings that support the Crown Point bridge are deteriorating rapidly. The route is used by more than 3,000 vehicles every day. About half of those cars and trucks are driven by people going to work. The bridge is also an important route for tourists. As Brian Mann reports, state and Federal agencies say replacing or permanently repairing the bridge could take half a decade.

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This DOT photo shows the extent of the bridge's decay (Source:  NYS DOT)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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This is really a story that began in August 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  When the I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River, 13 people died. 

Across the US transportation officials scrambled to re-inspect bridges that were on their watch lists. In September 2007, work crews crawled over the footings of the Crown Point Bridge.  Observers on shore could see chunks of concrete tumbling into Lake Champlain.

At the time, New York's DOT acknowledged that the bridge was deteriorating.  But in the months since, concerns about the bridge have escalated.

This summer, the span was reduced to one lane.  Last night, the state's bridge consultant Tom Potts showed frightening close-up photographs of the bridge's steel girders and cement foundations literally rotting and rusting away.

"You can see in this photo the deterioration is actually so bad it's undermining the bearing of the bridge.  That's a serious condition."

Potts said there were specific concerns with part of the bridge known as gusset plates, which may have contributed to the collapse of the bridge in Minnesota.

Emergency repairs in Crown Point are still underway but one-lane traffic remains open. 

Hundreds of people gathered last night in the Addison Vermont Central School Gymnasium say the bridge is key to their communities and livelihoods.

Carol Sweeney from Crown Point New York works at the hospital in Middlebury, Vermont.

"Approximately eighty people come from Crown Point to the hospital, different shifts," she said.  "We can't afford not to have a bridge."

New York State Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward heads the public advisory committee for the project.  She says there are no good alternate routes.

"It just has to stay open," she said.

There was a lot of anger here that the bridge - a landmark for eight decades -- wasn't better maintained.  

Transportation officials insist that proper maintenance and inspections were conducted.  But they acknowledged that funding simply wasn't available for the kinds of wholesale repairs and upgrades the bridge needed.

"We don't have enough money to fund for the repairs for all the bridges that we have," said Jim Boni, the NY DOT's project manager.  "It's just an epidemic."

With the bridge already at reduced capacity, people at this meeting were also concerned about safety.

 The span is still used by logging trucks, manure spreaders, and eighteen wheelers - the biggest vehicles on the road.

State officials concede that two years after those first worrisome inspections they're still trying to get a firm grip on the bridge's conditions. 

Asked about the safety the DOT's Boni answered this way.

"We're pretty confident that it's safe.  Once these repairs are done, we're confident it'll be safe.  The repairs being made are just basically to beef up our confidence."

Officials say full construction of a replacement or large-scale rehabilitation of the bridge won't get underway until at least 2013.  Many at this meeting said that's not fast enough.

"I believe there's an awful lot of red tape in this process and someone needs to cut through it," said Roger Nolthy.

Complicating the planning process is the fact that there are archeological treasures on both sides of the bridge span - including the original Crown Point fort.  Also, the bridge itself is a historic landmark, says Steven Engelhart director of a group called Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

"The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places," Engelhart said.  "It's also in the process of being designated as a National Historic Landmark which makes it one of only about 12 structures and buildings in the Adirondack region so listed."

If the work and inspections this autumn goes as planned, the bridge could return to two-lane traffic by the end of October.  

Officials say they'll likely spend at least another six million dollars next year, keeping the bridge operational while a permanent fix is sorted out.

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