Houghton County calls for more lift restrictions on bridge

HOUGHTON — After months of traffic backups due to construction on the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, Houghton County is asking for longer windows during peak hours during which the bridge does not have to lift for recreational boats.

The board approved a resolution Tuesday calling on the U.S. Coast Guard 9th District Commander Blair Stanifer to restrict lifts during the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. hours, and again for the 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. hours.

“Sailboats can go through at say, 7 and 7:10 a.m., then the bridge is closed,” said Administrator Ben Larson. “We’ll see you at 8:50 (a.m.), then we’ll put the bridge up again. But everybody’s going to get to work on time, and everybody can get home and not have to get home at 7 o’clock. I think it’s something worth doing.”

Being on a federal waterway, the bridge must lift for commercial traffic at all times. The same has generally been true for recreational traffic. The Michigan Department of Transportation received temporary clearance restricting lifts for recreational traffic between 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Larson has also asked the Michigan State Police; Mercy EMS; the city governments, police departments and fire departments of Houghton and Hancock; and Michigan Technological University to show support. The letters will be sent on to Michigan Department of Transportation Superior Region Engineer Aaron Johnson, who will make the request to the Coast Guard.

Larson patterned the request after a Code of Federal Regulations modification granted to the bridge in Charlevoix to accommodate traffic during tourist season.

“It’s a very big concern for us to get an ambulance to the front of the four ramps onto the bridge,” Larson said. “And then everybody’s backed up for two hours and they get down and say ‘Really? For a sailboat?'”

This summer’s repairs are part of a $3.9 million MDOT project to improve the bridge. The work this summer has focused on the finger joints that connect the moving and fixed parts of the bridge. Originally scheduled to be finished by the end of August, the finger joint work was extended after crews found structural deficiencies underneath the section to be replaced that needed to be addressed before the joints could be replaced. Minnesota firm HDR, which designed the project, had not identified the structural issues during inspection, Commissioner Glenn Anderson said.

Work on the finger joints is expected to continue until Nov. 7, MDOT told Anderson. Motors for the bridge will also be replaced this winter.

“Even with all the work they’ve done, by the end of this week, they’ll only have two of the four lanes done,” Anderson said.

The southbound outside lane and northbound outside lane will be the last to be completed.

The board approved a resolution introduced by Anderson expressing the board’s displeasure with the pace of the project and the missed structural issues. It also asked MDOT to expedite work on the project and to include an aggressive, 24/7 work schedule for any future bridge work involving lane closures.

“They picked the four months that are the absolute busiest,” he said.

At the urging of Vice Chair Tom Tikkanen, the board also referred the topic to the emergency management subcommittee devoted to the bridge. Tikkanen said the county needs to explore alternatives, including the construction of a second bridge.

The bridge subcommittee had been put on the back burner following the 2018 flood, said Chair Al Koskela. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to put a temporary bridge across the North Entry had to be scrapped after it found the road leading up to it on the north end would have to go through wetlands, Koskela said.

“I think it’s high time for that to be resurrected as a regular effort to find out just how quickly we can get an emergency bridge in place,” Tikkanen said. “We won’t have time to argue about wetlands and things of that nature at a time like that.”


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