PORT HENRY - The Lake Champlain Bridge in Crown Point will not re-open until late spring or early summer of 2010.
"I have to be honest, that's the earliest we can hope," Robert Dennison, New York State Department of Transportation chief engineer, said. "That's assuming we don't find things that complicate the process."
Dennison made his remarks to an overflow crowd at Moriah Central School Oct. 28 during a public information meeting on the bridge.
The bridge, which serves about 4,000 vehicles a day, links New York and Vermont. It was closed Oct. 16 when an inspection found its concrete piers had disintegrated.
The bridge is jointly owned by the states of New York and Vermont, although New York DOT is responsible for its maintenance.
The bridge, built in 1929, has been the site of repair work since mid-summer. Plans were being made to replace the bridge in 2013.
There was no alternative to closing the bridge, Dennison said.
"It was simply too risky," he said. "We found this bridge could collapse under its own weight."
Dennison said DOT has a tentative plan for repairing the span. He said dams will be constructed around each pier and water pumped out from around them. The concrete piers will then be reinforced with steel and encased in more concrete. Bearings on the bridge deck will then be replaced.
The work will be complicated by winter weather and the threat posed by the bridge.
"We're concerned the bridge could fall on our workers," Dennison said. "It's in that bad of shape."
To help commuters who rely on the bridge, New York DOT and the Vermont Agency of Transportation are investigating alternative routes for motorists.
New York DOT is studying a possible temporary bridge. A pontoon, or floating, bridge is not a viable option, Dennison said, because it can't handle more than one vehicle at a time and won't work in ice. A "fixed" bridge is possible, he said, although a suitable location has yet to be found.
State officials suggested a bridge at Chipman's Point, three miles south of Ticonderoga in Putnam on the Wright's Ferry Road. That proposal was immediately rejected by local leaders, who feel it is too far out of the way.
Vermont transportation officials are studying additional ferry service to assist motorists.
Jim Harris of the Vermont Agency of Transportation said the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry is not capable of operating in the winter and will be closing soon. He suggested an "icebreaker" ferry could be brought to the Ti location to provide service during the winter.
He also said locations for new ferry service, such as Port Henry beach across to Addison, Vt., are being studied.
Placing a ferry at the site of the bridge is impossible, Harris said, because of safety concerns.
"We don't want the bridge to collapse on the ferry," Harris said. "It's a real concern."
Michael Weber, assistant to New York Gov. David Paterson, assured people the bridge closure is a top priority for government.
"It's not about the bridge, it's about people," Weber said. "We can fix the bridge. We need to take care of the people and community."
Weber's comments didn't impress the crowd, many of whom expressed anger and frustration with New York State DOT for allowing the bridge to fall into disrepair. They demanded immediate action.
"We can't continue with 'we might' or 'we may'," Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said to DOT officials. "This is a crisis. We need answers now."
Speaker after speaker urged officials to find a temporary solution near the site of the bridge, calling it an "economic corridor."
"This is not a New York problem or a Vermont problem," Darwin Pratt of Bridport, Vt., said. "We're a community. We want a ferry at the bridge or in Port Henry. The existing economic corridor should not be disrupted."
Dana Franklin, owner of the West Addison General Store in Vermont, said his business is being ruined.
"Our business has slowed to nothing; we depend on our New York customers," he said. "Any temporary transportation has to remain in the same corridor."
Franklin said he and his neighbor, Lee Kayhart, own land on Lake Champlain and are willing to allow its use for a ferry landing.
Norm St. Pierre, owner of Norm's Bait and Tackle on the Bridge Road in Crown Point, also said his business is suffering. He noted ice fishing season, one of his most profitable times, is nearing and his business is inaccessible.
"I used to live on the Bridge Road," he said. "Now, I live on the road to no where."
To help commuters deal with the bridge closure, New York State has established an outreach center. It can be reached by calling toll-free (888)769-7243. The center, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, can also be reached by calling 485-1159.
The state has also made "impact statements" available to commuters and businesses. They are available at the local town offices, online at www.LCBclosure.org or by calling 597-3035.
Service at the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry has been extended to assist motorists. The ferry, which was scheduled to close for the season Oct. 31, will now stay open until Nov. 15 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. New York has reached an agreement with the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry operator to offer free ferry service between Ticonderoga and Shoreham, Vt.
State officials have also announced a deal with Lake Champlain Transportation to offer free ferry service at the Essex/Charlotte crossing and the creation of a free express bus service. In addition, pedestrian ferry service has been established north of the Lake Champlain Bridge between Westport, New York and Basin Harbor, Vermont.