A new four-person Plattsburgh-based committee is dedicated to “bridging the gap” between the Lake and Queen cities.
A Vermont Agency of Transportation official says the bridge is possible, but challenging.
“Ideally this is the bridge,” said Heather Van Arsdel, while pointing to the Plattsburgh-Grand Isle area of the lake.
It’s probably something many area residents have fantasized about: a bridge.
“We’ve never run into anyone who has ever said they don’t want the bridge,” said Damian Battinelli, a committee member.
The committee’s goal is to nudge federal and state lawmakers often enough that within the next 5 years there will be a bridge connecting Plattsburgh to the Grand Isle area.
“We’re talking about building a 21st century economy and in order to do that you need a 21st century infrastructure,” said Matthew Waite, a committee member.
The team members are from all different backgrounds: a dance studio owner, a photographer, a lawyer and a retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Jerry Davis, who has been researching this for years.
Their story began on Christmas Eve when Van Arsdel pulled into the ferry dock on Cumberland Head.
“The guy looked me in the eye and he pulled that rope across and I just lost it. I pulled out my phone and I said ‘I’m starting a petition’,” she said.
The petition urges lawmakers to build a bridge.
More than 4,200 people have already signed it.
The group has already met with New York Assemblyman Billy Jones. Van Arsdel made a quick pitch to Governor Andrew Cuomo during his recent Plattsburgh visit.
They all sat down with staffers from Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s office.
“It’s excitement about it, you can see the excitement and then…the money,” said Battinelli.
In a first sign of movement on this issue, Congresswoman Stefanik’s office has reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find out how to move forward.
“I think about the possibility of a study even happening,” said Van Arsdel. “I think it’s like the step before the step. They have 30 days to respond. So right now, we’re waiting for their response.”
To the committee members, the benefits are clear.
“[In Plattsburgh] we have cheaper housing. People in Vermont, very likely, if there was a bridge, would move over here and they’d like here and transport and vice versa,” said Waite.
“The Vermont hospital set up is taking over CVPH and lots of patients get transferred for whatever reason…families gotta go over and visit their loved ones in the hospital. What happens?” asked Dr. Davis.
“It would really help my business and I’m sure there are other businesses where it would really help as well,” said Van Arsdel.
“In my 25 years [at VTrans], I have not experienced any serious conversations about a bridge across Lake Champlain,” said Wayne Symonds, Chief Engineer at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Symonds says the focus has been on repairing the state’s existing bridges, not building new ones.
He admits a bridge would lead to significant technical and environmental challenges.
“I don’t think it’s impossible. There are bridges that are built in deep water every day, it just comes at a cost for engineering and time and money,” he said. “Certainly at some point we would want to have a discussion with New York about what they’re feelings are as well. When the time is right, certainly, we could have that conversation.”
The committee says $1 billion is the price tag most often linked to the project.
“Senator Sanders mentioned I think a $1 trillion infrastructure package. I think that’s more in line of what we were hoping to see,” said Waite. “I’d certainly be interested to talk to the Senator about this and I think we’re likely to facilitate that in the near future.”
Senator Bernie Sanders’ spokesperson did not return Local 22 & Local 44 News’ request for comment.
“States decide their own priorities in using federal funds for road and bridge projects,” wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy’s spokesperson David Carle.
If a bridge were to be built, it would greatly affect Lake Champlain Ferries, which operates ferries in three areas on Lake Champlain, including from Plattsburgh to Grand Isle.
The company was founded in 1826 to transport commercial goods, including lumber into Burlington’s port.
Now it carries people and their vehicles back and forth over Lake Champlain.
“The focus of Lake Champlain Ferries is to provide the best possible ferry service twenty four hours a day, seven days a week at the Grand Isle – Plattsburgh crossing,” said Heather Stewart, operations manager for Lake Champlain Ferries in response to our inquiry.
Meanwhile, the bridge committee will keep at it. “We’re going to start making a lot of noise real soon,” said Battinelli.
To join the conversation to “bridge the gap,” join the group’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/339631046522996/