HOUGHTON - The trip across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge Wednesday was routine for many of the people in the cars waiting for the bridge to lower and traffic to resume - but what is supposed to be just a few minutes turned into hours for traffic wanting to cross into Houghton and Hancock.
The Portage Lake Lift Bridge was out of commission for about three hours Wednesday afternoon, causing backed up traffic and delays.
At almost 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, the bridge was back in operation with cars free to cross, but officials are left wondering what caused the problem and what comes next.
Andy Sikkema, transportation engineer with the Michigan Department of Transportation Ishpeming Transportation Service Center, said it's uncertain now what the exact problem with the bridge is.
"Something is causing us to lose power," he said. "It's not that we can't move the bridge. It's just that we're going to keep it in the middle position until we get it fixed."
Sikkema said engineers from a company in New York and an MDOT electrician will arrive at about noon to examine the bridge, and drivers should expect delays after 6 p.m.
"Motorists should expect the bridge will move several times," he said. "Those delays could become extensive."
Jack Dueweke, emergency coordinator for Houghton and Keweenaw Counties said at some point during operation, the lift span did not seat properly on the deck, causing the deck to be a bit askew.
"They aren't sure why but experts from the MDOT family are here to investigate the problem," Dueweke said.
During the delay, Chief John Donnelly and Patrolman Zach Wheeler were on the scene directing traffic.
"They are making small progress right now, and they do have some movement," Donnelly said. "We are enacting a plan for relieving this congestion."
Standing in the intersection, Donnelly and Wheeler directed traffic to back up off of the bridge, occasionally popping their heads in and out of windows to let those waiting in the line of traffic know they were free to move. Some drivers, however, opted not to budge, waiting patiently for the bridge to go back into position.
With both local hospitals and emergency vehicles located in Hancock and Laurium, Donnelly said alternate emergency services were put into place Wednesday.
"We've got the Coast Guard here to move people across if we have to, and also we notified Bay and other ambulance services outside of the area," he said.
Starting around 3:30 p.m., U.S. Coast Guard Station Portage provided medical transportation from the Houghton side near the boat launch over to waiting ambulances parked in the Ramada Inn Parking lot. By an hour later, Second Class Boatswain's Mate John McAdams said they had transported two patients across the canal for medical attention.
Medical concerns were on the minds of others as well, like Sulo Maki of Lake Linden, who was stuck with his car on the Houghton side of the bridge.
"My medications are at home and we don't have cell phone service in Lake Linden so I can't get a hold of my wife," he said. "She's probably wondering where I'm at."
In the meantime, Maki said he and his dog, Sadie Mae, were keeping cool with water to drink and air conditioning.
Dueweke said operation issues with the bridge have happened before, but for different reasons.
"The bridge has been down, from the swing bridge to the lift bridge," he said.
"There have been times when both of those bridges have been down, either mechanical or structural problems, but this is the longest it's been out, especially this time of the year and this time of the day when rush-hour traffic is doing their business and people are coming home from work."
However, many entities came together to smooth the situation a bit, he said.
"I think the traffic routing plans developed worked very well and the emergency response plan the county enacted worked extremely well," he said. "From my experience as an emergency manager, the response went exceptionally well."
Dueweke said these backup emergency operating plans have been in place for many years in case of events like these.
"We refine our plans and make them more user-friendly or more appropriate for the response," he said. "There's always plans and I'm really grateful for the work all of the people provided."
"Right now, we're determining the cause and seeing that the problem is fixed," Dueweke said. "This is not a problem anyone wants to have repeated."
Sikkema said marine traffic should be limited to vessels no taller than 30 feet until the problem is fixed.
There are often problems with the bridge, Sikkema said, but delays are usually much shorter.
"This is an infrequent occurrence," he said. "It's a very reliable bridge."
Sikkema said more than 20,000 vehicles per day cross the bridge.