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The Lake Champlain Bridge is still a work in progress (Photo:  Brian Mann)
The Lake Champlain Bridge is still a work in progress (Photo: Brian Mann)

Lake Champlain bridge on schedule, "several million dollars" over budget

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New York's Transportation Department is spending millions of dollars of extra money, trying to finish the Lake Champlain Bridge by the October 9th deadline.

The old bridge was closed in 2009 and eventually demolished because of safety concerns.

At a briefing last night in Addison, Vermont, DOT officials said efforts to build the new bridge as fast as possible have been complicated by wintry weather and by debris on the lake bottom.

Still, as Brian Mann reports, community leaders and local businesses are praising the state for scrambling to finish the project on time.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and I’m on the deck of the Cumberland, one of the ferries that’s been operating between New York and Vermont here in Crown Point. 

Off to the North, there’s a line of construction barges and giant cranes rising up around the pilings, the concrete pilings, that are already in place.

If construction continues as expected, the entire bridge will be in place ready for an opening in October.

"I mean the mood’s changed because we can see progress out there," said Lisa Cloutier, who owns the Bridge Restaurant, on the Vermont shore. 

She also sits on the Lake Champlain Bridge Coalition that formed when this crisis began as the old bridge was being condemned.

"2009 when the bridge closed, we were afraid that we were going to be forgotten," Cloutier recalled.  "The bridge was going to close, nothing was going to happen.  Now we're very happy.  We're counting the days actually."

Expectations here are running very high.  At last night’s public information session, the DOT’s John Grady said to finish on time, the new bridge at Crown Point will cost “several million dollars” more than originally budgeted.

"We have spent additional money on overcoming the obstructions.  We spent additional money on trying to accelerate some of the items of work, to get back some of the time we lost because of those obstructions."

The obstructions Grady talks about were chunks of debris down on the murky bottom of Lake Champlain.

 When the construction company called Flat Iron tried to sink new piers and foundations for the bridge, they sometimes ran into big pieces of the old bridge.

"That's a piece of the old bridge rail," Grady said, showing a photograph of a twisted piece of metal.  "We found that at pier six."

There were other complications as well, including bureaucratic tangles with environmental agencies on both sides of the lake.

 Construction crews had to work around archeological sites and they even identified for the first time the location of an old French fort on Vermont’s shore. 

Another huge hurdle was weather.  It’s been a tough winter for everyone in the North Country.

But project manager Mark Mallott, with the Flat Iron Construction company, says working out on the lake was "brutal."

"They certainly worked through some significant conditions with the brutal weather we had here," Mallott said, praising local workers. 

Even now that temperatures have warmed, the DOT’s John Grady says wind is still a factor for the site, as crews try to use cranes to move massive loads of steel and concrete.

"There were days when we just couldn't work," he said.

Flat Iron and the DOT are still scrambling to make on October 9th opening day.   Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward from Willsboro co-chairs the bridge’s advisory committee.

She says there are still some big hurdles ahead, including the day when engineers float a big chunk of the steel bridge from Port Henry where it’s being assembled.

"The time when we will be most tense is when they're moving that centerpiece in and trying to lift that up," she said.  "It's got to be very precise."

As the DOT struggles with its technical and budget issues in these final months, businesses in the area are also holding their breath, waiting for life to return to normal.  Again, Lisa Cloutier, at the Bridge Restaurant.

"I'm hanging in there, but I have pulled up every resource that I have trying to stay alive.  It's been tough," she added.

It didn’t help that this bridge closure came during the deepest recessions in the last fifty years.

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