Across New York, the Lake Champlain Bridge has become a symbol of the state’s underfunding of its capital needs, and the repercussions of deferred maintenance. Locally, the closure of the bridge last October (due to cracks found in the pilings), and its subsequent demolition, has led to tremendous costs on residents and businesses.
This bridge was a major transportation link, the only bridge connecting Vermont and New York over Lake Champlain (all other links are via ferry). The bridge carried just over 3,500 trips a day — half of which were daily commuters. As State Sen. Betty Little said in November, “It is impossible to truly understand and appreciate the hardship of those who have been directly impacted as a result of this bridge closure. It is more than a disruption. Their lives have been turned upside down.”
The driving detour is substantial – for some, turning a 35-mile commute into a 110-mile journey. A new, free ferry opened in February, just south of the now-destroyed bridge, and a second slip was added in March to meet commuter demand and accommodate heavier vehicles. But rush hour still leads to a long line of cars and an extended wait due to lack of capacity. One resident of Westport, NY, a teacher who works in Vermont, decided to take a hit to the pocket book instead of shouldering this commuting headache—like others, he chose to rent temporary housing in Vermont. The winter was an especially difficult time for businesses, many of which laid off employees in a region that is already economically depressed.
At Wednesday’s Public Forum on DOT spending, Sen. Little said NYSDOT had worked quickly with the local community to address this crisis. However, there is lingering resentment in the North Country towards the bureaucracies that let this disaster happen. As a new local folk song states: “All the pilings are all rotten / simple maintenance was forgotten / ineptitude from shore to shore (for sure!)”
Others worry that maintenance deferred on other bridges could result in much more tragic consequences. In fact, over a fifth of bridges are deficient in New York and 163 bridges are “very dangerous” (worse off than the Champlain Bridge was), according to the “New York’s Bridges Are Falling Down” project of the Associated General Contractors. State budget concerns squeezed NYSDOT’s proposed capital program from a 5-year, $25.8 billion plan to a 2-year, $7 billion one. Although more than half (51%) of the plan will go to bridge repair and rehabilitation, the plan forthrightly states that the reduction in overall funding will lead the state backwards: “The proposed program will result in an increase in the backlog of bridge replacement and rehabilitation and bridge corrective maintenance needs” (pg. 6).
NYSDOT and Vermont DOT are currently accepting bids on contracts to construct the replacement bridge, which is expected to cost $75 million and take 15 months to complete.
Images: Photos by Nadine Lemmon/TSTC. More photos available at Tri-State’s Facebook page.