LOST LINK, DISRUPTED LIVES

Closure leaves few options for users of Champlain Bridge

BRIAN NEARING STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

CROWN POINT -- Harvey and Geraldine Wood sat in their parked SUV, looking out Monday at the closed Champlain Bridge and into Vermont. There, about 25 miles away in Middlebury, their seriously ill son is in a nursing home. And the way to see him just got a lot longer, time consuming and more expensive.


When the half-mile bridge over Lake Champlain was suddenly closed Friday as unsafe, a major connection between New York and Vermont was severed, leaving the Woods and about 4,000 people who rely on it each day with no good alternative.


"We're desperate," said Mrs. Wood, 73, the retired town clerk in Crown Point. "Our son is in the nursing home with progressive multiple sclerosis, and we go to visit him every other day. We use this bridge a lot."


Without the bridge, the Woods could drive about a dozen miles to a small ferry in Ticonderoga, paying $14 for a round-trip crossing, which will get expensive in a hurry. Their other choice might be even worse, especially with winter coming -- a drive on windy mountain roads to Whitehall, Washington County, below the south end of the lake, into Vermont on Route 4 and then back north to Middlebury -- a trek of 75 miles.


A few hundred yards from where the Woods sat, an assortment of state lawmakers, transportation officials and local elected leaders huddled in an emergency closed-door meeting at the Crown Point State Historic Site on what to do about the 80-year-old bridge.


Stepping out briefly, state Sen. Betty Little said the state needs to explore possible ferry subsidies in Ticonderoga, or at Essex, about 30 miles north. "The state has to do something to help the farmers here, help the workers," said Little.


Traffic on the bridge had been restricted on and off over the summer as the beginning of a $1 million repair project. But engineers from the state Department of Transportation ordered it closed Friday afternoon -- shortly after the Woods had returned from visiting their son in Vermont -- because of significant erosion of two concrete piers that support the bridge.


Late Monday, the Essex County Board of Supervisors called for New York and Vermont to declare a state of emergency, and install a temporary bridge at Crown Point while the existing historic bridge -- which was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- is either repaired or replaced.


Gov. David Paterson said the state would work "as quickly as possible to reopen the bridge" without endangering public safety.


"This bridge is a ribbon carrying the economy on both sides of the lake," said Hugh Gunnison, owner of Gunnison Lakeshore Orchard in Crown Point, whose family started an orchard along Lake Champlain in the 1820s. He is the fifth generation to run the operation.


Looking around his empty gift shop and bakery, with coolers full of apples in the back, he estimated that Vermont residents account for about 40 percent of his retail trade. And most of the businesses that sell and service his farm equipment are on the Vermont side of the lake.


"And should anyone get injured here, now that we can't get to Middlebury, the closest trauma hospital we have now is either in Glens Falls or Plattsburgh, more than an hour away," he said.


One of his sons, an electrical engineer who works across the lake in Vergennes, Vt., was among those who made the long drive south to Whitehall that morning. And there were more than a few.


"Down here, the traffic on Route 4 has been tremendous, from all the people making the big circle around the lake," said Linda Barber, a local real estate agent in the Whitehall region.


Shortly after 5 p.m., vehicles were lining up at the small, 18-car Ticonderoga Ferry, which normally makes its last run at 5:45 p.m., and normally would close at the end of this month for the winter.


But because of the bridge closure, the cable ferry is running until 8 p.m. and will continue its seven-minute crossings until the lake starts to freeze. The Essex ferry also is extending its hours further into the fall season.


In the ferry line at Ticonderoga were Dennis and Debbie Root, a Schroon Lake couple who were trying to get to the airport in Burlington, Vt., to drop off a car for visiting children, and get back to Ticonderoga before the last ferry run.


"I've never been to the Burlington airport before," said Root, a technology teacher at Schroon Lake High School. ''So I have to find where I need to go, and then get back here before the last ferry leaves. Driving the legal speed limit, of course."


Rumors were already swirling in Ticonderoga that the Wal-Mart was cutting back its 24/7 hours, starting Saturday, because of the loss of Vermont customers.


That's one thing the bridge closure cannot be blamed for, said store manager Vera Kugler.


"We had already decided to do that before the bridge, because of sales volume," she said.


Brian Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or by e-mail at bnearing@timesunion.com.


BOX:


1. Champlain Bridge closed at Crown Point and Chimney Point, Vt.


Detours:


2. Fort Ticonderoga Ferry and the Lake Champlain Transportation Co.'s Essex-Charlotte ferry


3. Southern end of Lake Champlain near Whitehall