Could latest drawbridge issue prompt action?

Becky Vargo • Aug 22, 2018 at 6:54 PM

Traffic piled up late Wednesday morning on both the northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. 31 after problems with the drawbridge’s locking mechanism caused its tenders to drop the gates.

The northbound lanes were reopened after a couple of short delays, but the southbound lanes were closed for almost two hours, with just one brief opening at around 11:30 a.m.

Grand Haven public safety officers on the south side and Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputies to the north helped divert traffic during that time, said Sgt. Jason Kik of the Sheriff’s Office. Vehicles were diverted off southbound U.S. 31 via the Spring Lake exit and directed to take M-104 east to M-231 and then south again.

“Deputies were staged throughout the route to assist with traffic during and after the closure,” Kik said.

At the same time, city officials were wrapping up a meeting with U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, “to discuss the federal side of bridge regulations and to explore avenues to better connect bridge operations with local conditions,” said Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke.

City Manager Pat McGinnis said the group was discussing the next steps when Hawke received a call that the bridge was stuck.

“It was such a weird coincidence,” McGinnis said.

The congressman requested that they go up on the bridge and see the situation in person, McGinnis added.

The meeting, which also included Mayor Geri McCaleb and local Chamber of Commerce President Joy Gaasch, was arranged as a result of drawbridge issues a couple of months ago, when traffic was stalled for hours on both the Friday and Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend.

After that Friday, “we requested they not open it again the rest of the weekend,” McGinnis said. But the bridge operators said they were required to open it, and so they did, and it broke again, McGinnis said. 

The city manager noted that the regulations regarding bridge openings are cumbersome and they were just starting discussions to see if there is anything they could do for some local control for special instances. McGinnis said officials would like to be able to tell bridge tenders not to open for boats as often during heavy vehicular traffic times — for example, when the Electric Forest Music Festival in Rothbury is over.

The next step in the discussions will be to talk to local marina owners to gather information about boat sizes and needs for their operations, McGinnis said.

“This is just in the beginning stages,” the city manager noted.

Hawke said that he talked with personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard Bridge Program office in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago and verified that the schedule for bridge openings has not been reviewed since 1997. He said the city will be working with the Coast Guard and Michigan Department of Transportation to schedule a review.

Federal drawbridge regulations outline the opening schedule for every bridge in the United States. Drawbridge Regulations CFR Title 33, Part 117.633, is for the Grand River drawbridge in Grand Haven. It says: “Public vessels of the U.S., state or local vessels used for public safety, commercial vessels and vessels in distress shall be passed through the draw of each bridge as soon as possible.”

The regulations also note that the drawbridge will open for pleasure craft, on signal, from March 16 through Dec. 14, between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. on the hour and half-hour, with the exception of 7:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. weekdays, as well as at 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

From Dec. 16 through March 15, at least 12 hours notice is required for a bridge to be opened.

The regulations also note, in section 117.11, that “no vessel owner or operator shall signal the drawbridge to open if the vertical clearance is sufficient to allow the vessel, after all lowerable nonstructural vessel appurtenances that are not essential to navigation have been lowered, to safely pass under the drawbridge in the closed position.”

Maintenance work scheduled

MDOT officials previously announced that $850,000 worth of maintenance is planned for the Grand Haven drawbridge sometime during the first three months of 2019.

The work will include the replacement of the bridge’s motor drive system, alignment of its gear couplings, cleaning and painting the span lock and tail lock machinery, and upgrading miscellaneous electrical components.

“The new motor drive system makes up the lion’s share of that cost — estimated at approximately $500,000,” MDOT Grand Region spokesman John Richard said.

Previous work on the bridge includes a detailed inspection of its electrical, mechanical and structural components in 2015; an epoxy overlay, partial steel grid deck replacement and joint replacement in 2007; detailed inspection of electrical and mechanical systems in 2003; and concrete overlay, joint replacement and new railings in 1999.

The bridge was constructed in 1958 and opened to traffic the next year. 

Taller, fixed bridge?

Given the reliance on the bridge for many in Northwest Ottawa County, and commuters just passing through town, many have wondered what it would take to construct a taller, modern bridge to replace the current structure, which sits about 23 feet above the Grand River. 

Funding issues aside, Richard noted that the space a taller bridge would take up both on the north and the south side of the river would have an effect on the community. The approaches to a taller bridge would likely begin before Jackson Street for the northbound lanes and before the Ferrysburg/Spring Lake exits for southbound lanes.

“The impact to the community and the environment would be huge,” Richard said.

Even a bridge that was 45 feet above the water would still be required to open and close, per U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

“There are still vessels that need clearance,” Richard said.

To build a bridge that wouldn’t need to open and close, Richard explained that the clearance would need to be 60 feet. By comparison, the M-231 bridge over the Grand River is about 37-38 feet above the water’s surface, he said.


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