CROWN POINT - When the Schoharie Bridge collapsed in the spring of 1987, it sent motorists plunging into the icy water of the flooded Schoharie Creek, claiming 10 lives and jolting the state into an intensified bridge safety policy. In the last 20 years, more than half of New York's early truss bridges were demolished. Even with heightened awareness of the importance of preserving the state's architecturally significant crossings, the future of many unique bridges remain uncertain.
The 80-year-old Champlain Bridge between Crown Point and Chimney Point, Vt. is among the survivors, but it's on the state's critical list - slated for either demolition or a major overhaul beginning in 2012. This has prompted preservationists to make early appeals to save it, and politicians to demand that the fate of the aging structure be addressed much sooner, not only to protect a critical state border link to jobs and tourism, but to help secure federal infrastructure funding for the project.
No major work has been done on the 2,186-foot span since 1991, when $7 million was spent to paint the exterior, repair piers and replace the bridge deck, expansion joints and railings. Today the bridge is again in need of a major overhaul. From afar, however, it appears as it did when Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the site for its celebrated opening in August 1929 - a venerable gateway to the Champlain region.
The view from underneath shows gray steel trusses stained with auburn swaths and rust, and scaling cement piers from years of contact with the annual freeze and thaw of Lake Champlain.
(Enterprise photo — George Earl)
Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, describes the Champlain Bridge as "the most significant work of bridge engineering in the Adirondack-Lake Champlain region.
"(It's) the first American bridge to employ a continuous truss that swings gracefully ... to a (central) channel-span through truss with curving upper and lower cords."
Despite the bridge's intrinsic structural appeal, auburn swaths now stain the gray steel trusses and looming channel-span. Expansion joints and rollers have seized, and its cement piers are beginning to scale from years of contact with the annual freeze and thaw of Lake Champlain. In the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation repaired a crumbling pier cap that was "yellow flagged" during a structural inspection the previous year. Otherwise, few problems have been addressed. DOT Structural Engineer Tom Hoffman reported during a public advisory committee meeting in June 2008 that the bridge "is not functioning as originally designed.
"There are problems with the main carrying members, bearings, joints, concrete, paint and wearing surface," he said.
The New York State Bridge Inspection Program has classified the Champlain Bridge as "structurally deficient." State inspectors follow rigorous assessment procedures that result in an overall bridge condition score. In its most recent June 2008 assessment, the bridge was given the lowest rating in the county: 3.7 out of a possible 7 points. Hoffman said a score less than 5 is considered structurally deficient, but a 3 or 4 is considered "seriously deteriorated."
Essex County officials say an action plan for the future of the Champlain Bridge is overdue. The county Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on Jan. 12 urging the state to seek federal stimulus money for the project. Stephanie Nigro, spokeswoman for U.S. Congressman John McHugh, said states would likely get a chunk of federal money to spend freely, rather than funds dedicated to specific projects. Supervisors hope some of that money might be spent on bridge repairs.
"That project is long overdue," said Thomas Scozzafava, supervisor of the town of Moriah, which includes Port Henry and several other small communities within minutes of the bridge. "The bridge is the lifeblood for 30 percent of my constituents in Moriah and Essex County that cross every day for their livelihood. We've had the bridge closed before, and it creates a terrific hardship on both sides. It's a vital link for this community."
Scozzafava said that when the Lake Champlain Bridge Commission operated the bridge, it was carefully maintained. The Vermont State Archives and Records Administration has few maintenance records on the Champlain Bridge before 1955 (the bridge was still relatively new and the Commission's office fire of 1970 may have destroyed some records). However, extensive reports are available from 1959 to 1986, during which time substantial repair work was done each year.
Formed in 1925, the commission included three representatives from Vermont and three from New York. The six members selected the site, hired the architects and engineers who built the bridge, and operated a toll house that funded its upkeep. In 1987 the bridge commission was abolished and New York and Vermont took ownership of the bridge. Today, DOT is responsible for its upkeep. The collapse of the Schoharie bridge the same year would spur an increase in state oversight, but Scozzafava said 1987 also marked the beginning of the decline of the Champlain Bridge.
"I go under (the bridge) when we go fishing, and I've seen it from the underside - it needs work," Scozzafava said. "When we had a bridge commission in place and a toll, that bridge was maintained every year. It was never allowed to deteriorate the way it is today."
Engelhart said the bridge, which is under review as a National Historic Landmark, is the most significant threatened historic structure in the region. He said that federal funding may boost rehabilitation efforts since work on the existing bridge could begin quickly, would be less costly than replacement and create jobs. In addition, he said it would be consistent with the state's Historical Bridge Management Plan, drafted in 1999 in an effort to save the few early bridges remaining in the state.
"In reality, the state hasn't lived up to the spirit of the bridge plan," he said. "It's there on paper, but they haven't always acted this way."
State Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, chair of the Public Advisory Committee on the bridge project, said safety trumps historic preservation. PAC is made up of regional politicians and other stakeholders who will make a collective recommendation to state agencies on the future of the crossing.
"Public safety has to be number one," she said: "It can't be historic preservation or anything else. In the case of a bridge or road, public safety has to be first."
She said it is her hope that the bridge will be left standing as a pedestrian crossing, with a new bridge constructed at a nearby site. Although PAC is still gathering public input and has not yet made its recommendation, Sayward said she sees several problems with rehabilitation.
"We have a lot of farmers with big manure spreaders that use the crossing. Traffic has to stop," she said. "(PAC) has made it a priority to have bike paths and walkways on the bridge. If we were to rehabilitate the bridge it would be difficult to widen."
Lisa Cloutier owns The Bridge Restaurant in Addison, Vt., a traditional diner within view of the crossing. Its menu and awnings are embossed with the bridge's distinctive silhouette. Cloutier said she loves the bridge, but that it's time for a new one.
"You can put a Band-Aid on it, but it's still old bones," she said. "Why put millions into it so it will last another 10 years? Why not go the distance and build something that will last another 80?"
Several problems stand in the way of building a new bridge, however.
PAC's top priority is that, no matter what happens, the crossing remain open. If a new bridge were constructed, a different site would have to be selected. Residents and stakeholders say the bridge must be kept close to the original site, which might be difficult since both shores are sprinkled with archeological and state historic sites, like 18th-century British and French forts and the Samuel de Champlain Lighthouse. The location was selected in 1927 for its sound geology and narrow reach across Lake Champlain. Today, more than 3,000 cars cross the bridge every day - a central spoke for big employers like International Paper in Ticonderoga and Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, Vt.
One of the patrons at the Bridge Restaurant said she hoped the old bridge would be saved.
"It's beautiful," said Barbara Kolisko, of Addison, Vt. She said she's lived near the bridge her whole life. "I'm sure if they rebuilt it they'd build some utilitarian thing."