Governor walks Smith's Bridge, confirms needs

Marie Havenga • Jul 17, 2019 at 5:30 PM

FERRYSBURG — The closing of Smith's Bridge has generated much local attention, and it has now entered the state realm.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Ferrysburg on Wednesday morning for a brief walk over the bridge to learn about its deterioration and closing. She stuck around for questions from the media.

Although the most recent engineering inspection report did not state a recommendation to close the bridge, Ferrysburg City Council voted June 17 to do just that, because of safety concerns. Vehicles may no longer cross it — only bikes and pedestrians.

The report indicated the bridge deteriorated another 60 percent over the past winter.

John Bruinsma, regional bridge engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation, explained to the governor that the bridge is crumbling and the substructure is letting water in. Poster-size photos illustrated cracks and crevices under the bridge.

“The bridge is 47 years old,” Bruinsma told Whitmer. “It would be a good time to address these issues.”

Whitmer asked how the decision was made to close the bridge, which handles about 6,000 cars a day.

“This is diverting all kinds of traffic,” she added.

Ferrysburg Mayor Rebecca Hopp explained to the governor that school buses for the Grand Haven and Spring Lake districts and two charter schools are affected by it. Also, police and fire personnel must now detour. Due to decreasing load limits over the past years, emergency vehicles were forced to find an alternate route even before the bridge closure.

The sound of a siren sliced the air during the governor’s visit, as emergency crews headed to a reported natural gas leak on West Spring Lake Road.

“This emergency vehicle is making a detour,” Whitmer said, adding this gets us to “a finer point on what closing main arteries does in terms of public safety.”

During a walk across the bridge, Bruinsma pointed out surface damage and deterioration. He described substructure damage.

Whitmer noted there are 62 bridges in the state in dire need of repair or replacement. According to an MDOT official, there are 72 local bridges closed statewide.

City Manager Craig Bessinger told Whitmer that the bridge was rebuilt in 2008 with box beams, joint replacement and more. Routine maintenance has been performed since then.

The governor's next comments brought uproarious laughter.

“With good management, we can expect 40 years, or 47 years, which is what this bridge is, then you've got to rebuild,” said Whitmer, who is 47. “Forty-seven doesn't sound so old, but it is for a bridge — not for a governor.”

Whitmer said Ferrysburg is a small community with a dire need. She said almost everyone is impacted, from schools to citizens to visitors.

“This is a public safety issue, not just for people who cross this bridge but for people who are waiting on emergency services,” she said.

The bridge will cost about $13 million to replace — funds the city does not have, Bessinger said. Ferrysburg voters turned down a millage proposal in November 2017 that would have helped fund repairs or replacement. Bessinger has applied for state and federal grants for the past four years, but nothing has come to fruition.

Whitmer said she would like to see a bridge funding program in the state budget.

“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We need to have across-the-aisle conversations so we can get something done. We haven't seen an alternative proposed by the Legislature. That's the next step.”

Whitmer said it's not an easy problem to solve, but more conversations need to take place between the House and Senate.

“I'm tired of politicians who say we can have everything and pay for nothing,” she said. “I'm tired of people that pretend they're solving problems when they know that they aren't. I'm serious about fixing these issues. This is life and death in many ways. I remain optimistic we're going to get it done and we're going to sit at the table and be ready to negotiate.”

Hopp and Bessinger said they are pleased that Ferrysburg is on the state's radar. 

Hopp said she feels more optimistic about potential bridge funding after the visit.

“This is the first time we've had a governor into our community to discuss infrastructure needs,” the mayor said. “Hopefully, this opens up the lines of communication with people in Lansing.”

Bessinger said bringing awareness to the Smith's Bridge issue can only help.

“Hopefully, it's a positive step,” he said. “Anything that's going to help a community like Ferrysburg fund bridge replacement, I would support.”

Bessinger said he had “no idea” how Smith's Bridge came to the governor's attention.

“I'm guessing she picked up that the bridge has been closed,” he said. “She's making everyone aware of it. The more people that are aware of it, I think that helps us try to obtain funding.”

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