Ogdensburg’s aging bridge: OBPA says it needs $89m for repairs, upgrades – WatertownDailyTimes.com
OGDENSBURG — Ninety -year-old Betty M. Steele recalls the building of the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge in the late 1950s as if it were yesterday.
Ms. Steele, who lives on Black Lake Road just outside the city limits, said she was fascinated by the hordes of engineers and workers who descended on the area during the bridge’s construction from 1958 until 1960.
“It was a big project,” Ms. Steele said. “It certainly changed things.”
Today, 55 years after it was completed, the 1.5-mile suspension bridge connecting the United States and Canada is no longer a novelty, but a well-known physical fixture of the Maple City cemented in the region’s landscape and embedded in the community’s psyche.
The toll bridge also has become a pillar of the Northern New York economy, generating an estimated $4 billion in annual commerce related to the flow of some 700,000 cars and trucks across the border each year.
Like all things 50 and over, however, the bridge — which was built for $22 million but has a replacement value of half a billion — is showing its age.
‘THE BRIDGE IS SAFE’
Although the span over the St. Lawrence River to Ontario has passed the half-century mark in age, Wade A. Davis, executive director of the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, the bridge’s owner, is quick to stress that the link is safe for both commercial and private vehicle traffic.
“Let me be clear: fundamentally the engineers say the bridge is safe,” Mr. Davis said. “The bridge condition is listed as ‘fair to good.’ But I don’t want to kid you for a minute. There is some major work out there that needs to be done, and that is why we need some major investment by the state of New York and also the federal government on this. Because this bridge is extremely important to the regional economy.”
Mr. Davis, OBPA Chairman Samuel J. LaMacchia and other authority officials said they need approximately $89 million to make needed repairs and improvements to the bridge, and finding money toward that purpose has become a major focus for the agency.
This summer, the OBPA applied for a $2 million grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the authority said it hopes to find out by November whether the application has been approved.
If the federal grant money comes through, the OBPA said it will use the $2 million, plus $2 million from its own coffers, to make repairs to some of the bridge’s structural support beams, which have been damaged by rust and metal fatigue over the years.
While the money would go a long way toward repairing as many as a dozen steel supports helping to hold up the bridge, Mr. Davis said it would be woefully inadequate to address the bridge’s long-term maintenance needs. He said state and federal officials need to step up to help maintain the bridge, which last month received its first-ever “red flag” designation.
Engineering standards define a red flag as a deficiency of a critical structural component that requires propmpt evaluation and corrective action.
While Mr. Davis said repairs have been completed and the red flag removed, the OBPA’s quest for upgrades remains strong.
“This bridge was built with the full faith and credit of the state of New York behind it, and it is time for the full faith and credit of the state of New York, and the federal government, to step forward and help with the repairs,” Mr. Davis said. “Because, while we are a good steward of the bridge, we can’t do everything with it. We are entering a period where things are deteriorating faster than what we can maintain.”
Other issues at the aging span range from painting to repairs — and eventual replacement — of the structure’s steel decking and suspension cables.
One of three international spans in the north country that connect the United States and Canada, the Ogdensburg-Prescott bridge is the only one in which upkeep is paid for exclusively by the American side.
In the case of the Thousand Islands Bridge near Alexandria Bay and the Seaway International Bridge in Massena, the Canadian government shares ownership and is obliged to help with routine maintenance and repairs.
Mr. Davis said the Ogdensburg bridge is inspected once every two years, and an interim inspection is held on off years to keep an eye on potential problems. Every five years a summary report highlighting the bridge’s overall condition as it relates to safety is made public.
Inspections of the Ogdensburg bridge aren’t conducted by state or federal officials, but by private engineering firms as part of a competitive bidding process, according to Mr. Davis.
The last full inspection, in 2014, was conducted by Modjeski and Masters of Mechanicsburg, Pa. A copy of the report from each biennial inspection then is provided to the state Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Canadian officials.
A two-page summary report is prepared for release following the inspections, but the full report isn’t made public because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers the Ogdensburg-Prescott bridge to be a crucial piece of the country’s infrastructure system.
Mr. Davis said the final reports are certified and prepared by an outside agency to ensure the process is accurate and unbiased in its conclusions.
Michael R. Flick, a spokesman for the state DOT in Watertown, said that because the bridge is owned by the OBPA, his agency plays no role when it comes to inspecting the span — even though it is an important piece of the state’s infrastructure system.
He said that although the state receives copies of the bridge’s official inspection reports, it is not the department’s place to make any comments regarding the condition or safety of the bridge, or the difficulties associated with finding state, federal or local money to pay for maintenance.
“While the department doesn’t own, nor does it inspect, the Ogdensburg bridge, transportation providers all face the same challenges in maintaining their infrastructure,” Mr. Flick said, referring to the OBPA and others. “Despite the challenges, transportation providers continue to make sound and reliable transportation alternatives available to the motoring public.”
Mr. Davis points to his authority’s rigid inspection requirements as proof that the international bridge is safe despite its age.
Of the $89 million needed for repairs and improvements, he said, about $65 million would be for rust removal and paint.
The costs associated with painting the bridge are high for several reasons, according to the OBPA. Before the structure can be given a new topcoat, officials say, the existing paint needs to be removed, including a lead-based undercoat put on during original construction.
Likewise, growing patches of surface rust — a major nemesis of structural steel — need to be ground off and coated with a primer before repainting is done.
“Our biggest enemy out there isn’t terrorism; it’s rust,” Mr. Davis said. “We maintain things to the best of our ability, yet here is a structure that has a half-a-billion-dollar replacement value associated with it. We do the repairs when we can, on an as-needed basis.”
With an annual operating budget of $5 million, the OBPA can afford to do little of the bridge’s upkeep on its own. The authority’s annual budget is used not only for maintenance of the bridge, but for the Port of Ogdensburg and the authority’s airport.
To put the cost into perspective, Mr. Davis said the $89 million needed for repairs and upgrades is a figure that rivals the entire $100 million road and bridge maintenance budget for the state Department of Transportation’s Region 7, a geographical area stretching from Plattsburgh to Watertown.
A SIMPLER TIME
Although others recall construction of the Ogdensburg- Prescott International Bridge, Ms. Steele has an unusual perspective.
When the bridge was being built in 1958, she was already in her 30s, having come of age in an era when ferry boats were the mode of transportation used to move people and vehicles from Canada to the United States across the St. Lawrence River.
It was a simpler time, Ms. Steele maintains. No passports were needed for the journey. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn’t exist, and customs and immigration officials asked few, if any, questions of most travelers. Those bound for either north or south of the border simply got on a boat, paid the fare, and hopped off on the other side.
“It was easy,” Ms. Steele recalled. “One time we wanted to go horseback riding over in Canada, and so some of us girls just rode our horses onto the ferry and floated over. We spent the day riding our horses around in Canada and then came back on the ferry. No one thought much about it.”
Ogdensburg was bustling in those days, and cross-border travel was routine, Ms. Steele said. The Canadians came in droves to the American side of the river, mostly to shop in Ogdensburg’s then-historic downtown — before the urban renewal movement of the 1960s and ’70s pushed most of it to the ground. Others came to drink at any of a dozen city bars. Ms. Steele said people crowded the ferries daily headed for both sides of the border. Most traveled on foot; only a few cars made the 10- to 15-minute journey.
“I don’t remember many people taking their cars,” Ms. Steele said. “On any crossing there might be a couple, but often none. Most everybody just walked onto the ferry and then walked off on the other side when they got there.”
Informal talk of building a bridge linking Ogdensburg with Canada had gone on for generations in this U.S. border town, but didn’t begin in earnest until the 1930s. It would take decades more for the bridge project to gain federal and state approval. The Canadian government’s approval also was needed for the plan, even though Parliament would end up contributing no finances to the multimillion-dollar endeavor.
The cost for the bridge itself was about $17 million, but the addition of needed access ramps on both sides of the river brought the total to $22 million.
Ms. Steele was an established north country photographer when the bridge was built, and she helped document the project from the early days — when engineers still were charting the bridge’s course across the river — to its official opening to the public in September 1960.
And through it all, like others in the north country at the time, Ms. Steele listened to the community buzz about how the new bridge would help create an economic boon for the region.
On Sept. 15, OBPA officials received a red flag from engineers after an inspection identified a growing crack on one of the bridge’s steel support beams.
While “yellow flags” warning of potential problems are routine and are considered part of a span’s revolving inspection process, the red flag was the first such warning ever handed out to officials of the 55-year-old bridge.
“Red flags close bridges when you have enough of them,” Mr. Davis said.
He said there is no way he can determine how many red flags it would take to close the Ogdensburg-Prescott bridge, because each flag is unique and subjective regarding the degree to which it poses a danger.
Mr. Davis pointed to a 2012 report by the Office of the State Comptroller, which spells out the criteria that engineering firms must adhere to when conducting formal inspections of structures within the state, particularly those whose operations are overseen by a public authority.
“When a red-flag deficiency is found, the authority has six weeks to take appropriate action, such as closing the bridge, repairing defects or taking an appropriate alternative action to ensure the bridge is safe for use,” according to the comptroller’s office.
Mr. Davis said the red-flag repairs to the Ogdensburg bridge involved cleaning a portion of a support beam where a 23-inch crack had developed, and then bolting a new section of a steel beam in its place to fortify the area. He said shoring up the damaged area was not difficult for maintenance crews; the area where the crack appeared has been repaired, and the red flag was removed Oct. 1. But he said the event was a clear sign that the aging bridge is crying for help.
And, Mr. Davis said, without a more serious effort by state and federal lawmakers to help find additional sources of revenue, it may be difficult for his agency to keep pace.
In addition to seeking government funding for maintenance, Mr. Davis said, he hopes the ongoing expansion of the Ogdensburg International Airport will bolster Canadian traffic into the area. The toll to cross the bridge stands at $2.75, and OBPA officials said they have no plans to increase that fee.
But officials have predicted that, following the pending airport and runway expansion, as many as 35,000 Canadians a year could traverse the bridge — and thus pay the toll on their way to the airport to take advantage of cheaper flights expected to be offered by Allegiant Air.
OBPA officials received word in September that the Federal Aviation Administration had awarded $7.5 million for the airport expansion project, and construction is expected to begin in the next few weeks.
OBPA officials said Allegiant Air flights could begin arriving and departing from the revamped facility as early as November 2016.
Mr. Davis said any boost in bridge traffic means more revenue for the bridge and port authority, and more money that can be reinvested in the agency’s infrastructure.
“This (airport) project is an economic game-changer for the region, and we’re looking forward to its construction over the next 13 months,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s not every day that this type of project goes on in Northern New York. Simply put, it gives us more money we can spend on maintenance.”
Mr. Davis said the OBPA also has looked to Clarkson University in Potsdam to help ensure that the bridge remains viable for generations to come.
Realizing that any future funding for bridge maintenance is likely to come in “dribs and drabs,” the OBPA is partnering with Clarkson to develop a Business Information Model, a type of 3-D imaging computer program that will enable OBPA officials to take a detailed look at the entire structure, from its underwater footings to the miles of heavy cable helping support the expanse.
Dr. Kerop D. Janoyan, a professor in Clarkson’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, is leading the joint venture. He said the university’s goal is to develop a digital 3-D model that provides detailed information regarding each element of the bridge’s design, as well as the bridge as a whole that later can be used to make decisions on the best way to allocate maintenance resources as they become available.
“The BIM model can be used as the basis for structural analysis and structural health-monitoring efforts of the bridge,” Mr. Janoyan said. “Furthermore, the model is not limited to the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge and can be extended to other OBPA facilities, such as port, airport, rail bridges.”
In addition, he said, Clarkson is in the early stages of developing an unmanned aerial vehicle that would provide visual data of the Ogdensburg bridge and other OBPA assets that can be integrated with the current BIM model for the agency to use as an asset management tool.
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