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June 30, 2002

Bridge raises ire of delayed drivers

- Cheboygan city council hopes to rearrange drawbridge schedule

      Special to the Record-Eagle
      CHEBOYGAN - The joke in Cheboygan is that the drawbridge is only up when a driver needs to get over it.
      But the bridge's ups and downs have become a matter for the city council, which recently sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Transportation asking it to consider changing the schedule of bridge openings.
      Commuter Lisa Knaffle says she never gets caught on her way to work afternoons. Her husband John, however, had to adjust his schedule to leave at 7:05 a.m. instead of 7:20 so he doesn't get stopped while the Bois Blanc ferry passed the bridge.
      Rocky Woods, who lives on one side of the Cheboygan River and works on the other, said it's an inconvenience one learns to live with.
      "That's the only thing that irritates me, is if I'm in a hurry," he said.
      "You forget about it, and all of a sudden you get stuck in it."
      Lots of vehicles - especially at lunchtime - line up to cross the U.S. 23/State Street drawbridge, city police chief Kurt Jones said.
      Currently, the bridge opens to let private vessels pass at 15 minutes past and 15 minutes before the hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. during the summer, said Scot Striffler, bridge management specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard's 9th District.
      Outside those hours, recreational craft can slip through "on signal," or on demand.
      With the ferry to Bois Blanc Island, which carries passengers, cars and the U.S. mail, passing through twice during noontime, the bridge can go up for five to 10 minutes at a time four times in the space of an hour, Jones said.
      Traffic backs up five blocks in either direction on State, blocking adjacent streets on the east side and, on the west, spilling onto Main Street, Mackinaw Avenue and two blocks over onto Huron Street.
      Before it clears, the bridge opens again.
      Drivers often zoom down side streets to avoid delays. Raising the bridge fewer times over the one-hour crunch period would provide some relief for the traffic pattern, Jones said.
      Department of Transportation traffic maintenance engineer Randy Oswald said he plans to answer the city's June 11 letter within a few days after he checks in with the U.S. Coast Guard.
      Changes to the bridge schedule require a lot of steps, Striffler said. First, the city would have to request the change in an official letter.
      "If the change is revolving around vehicle traffic congestion, then we're going to ask them to submit traffic counts over a period and bridge tender logs," he said.
      The Coast Guard would take public comments before making a determination, Striffler said.
      The city would need a number of months just to gather the traffic data; once the request is made and data received, the process could take up to six months.
      The Coast Guard did change Cheboygan's off-season schedule last year. Boaters now have to give just 12 hours notice before passing the bridge during winter months, down from 24.
      And the city was granted a slight expansion in the number of days per year the bridge needs a full-time attendant.
      The new request involves the busy season for water and land commerce, however.
      Charlevoix requested a similar change in February 1999, Striffler said. In June 2000, a change went into effect: the hours of limited opening for private vessels were extended from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
      Unlike Charlevoix, Cheboygan has an alternate route: the Lincoln Avenue bridge just south of the Cheboygan Locks. It is not a drawbridge.
      "The Cheboygan (draw)bridge is not even close to being as busy as the Charlevoix bridge," said Pete Couture, who has worked at the Charlevoix bridge for six years, and before that for more than a decade in Cheboygan.
      "(Charlevoix) is the busiest (draw)bridge in the state of Michigan as far as boat traffic," he said.
      The Charlevoix bridge has to accommodate two Coast Guard vessels, a ferry that crosses a few times a day, two state vessels, several barges and tugs, as well as leisure traffic, he said.
      Possibly complicating Cheboygan's problems is that the Lincoln Avenue bridge is in need of major repairs and the city has already tightened weight restrictions. Jones said cement trucks from a nearby plant have to go around to the drawbridge, backing up traffic at Lincoln and Lafayette, as well as adding to State Street congestion.
      The city is low on the list of priority funding for bridge repairs, Cheboygan city manager Scott McNeil said. He doesn't expect repairs to the Lincoln bridge for a couple of years. And when work begins, Cheboygan will only have one route between its two halves.
      For the time being, residents will have to continue to deal with the traffic.
      "People know," Couture said. "They know when to get by the bridge."
      Margaret Massey, who was born and retired in Cheboygan, crosses 20 times a week, but always gets caught when she goes to her weekly hair appointment, she said.
      "I sit and wait," she said.
      Alice Stokes, who has to cross the bridge for work, has the timing down.
      "I just know when to and when not to," she said.
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