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Traffic backs up on the Niagara Thruway approach to the northbound South Grand Island Bridge as a result of the deck replacement project.
Harry Scull Jr. / Buffalo News

Focus: Traffic

Troubled bridge over water

Island deck work means slow crossing until mid-October


First the good news: The traffic-crunching, headache-producing and just plain all-around hated reconstruction of the South Grand Island Bridges is taking a break for the Fourth of July holiday.

Now the bad news: Hardly anyone is impressed.

“Big whoop-de-do,” said Lisa Malpica, a soon-to-be third-grade teacher with Niagara Falls City Schools and mother of two who has lived on Grand Island for 10 years.

And the worse news? The end of construction and delays is not scheduled until mid-October.

The south bridges will be swollen with visitors over the Fourth of July holiday, many slowing to a stop when they see big signs warning them of upcoming bumps, bringing traffic to a halt.

Motorists also will encounter a long row of waist-high yellow rubber dividers in place to prevent lane changes when both bridges are open and to divide two-way traffic when the other bridge is closed. The dividers also slow traffic to a crawl.

The state Thruway Authority, which is in charge of the bridge rehabilitation, said it made significant improvements Tuesday and Wednesday to the bumps, which are the result of a 4-inch difference between the old pavement and the new prefabricated decking plates.

Grand Island Supervisor Peter McMahon said the changes seemed to be working on Wednesday. “There’s no traffic whatsoever,” he said.

That’s a far cry from the waits of an hour or more that some motorists have complained about, or the bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching as far back as the Youngmann Highway’s Colvin Boulevard exit.

But the $48 million project — the biggest in 40 years — is far from over. And the bumps, though vastly improved, still cause motorists to slow down, if not stop.

“It’s a visual and psychological reaction,” said Tom Hurley, the Thruway Authority’s assistant division director for engineering.

Next week, one of the bumps will be slightly higher, the result of work to replace an expansion joint. That work will be done Tuesday, Wednesday and next Thursday. “I don’t know what the reaction will be,” Hurley said of those trying to cross the bridge.

Making predictions is hard because this is a new foray for the Thruway’s Buffalo division, he said. “We’ve never used prefabricated” decking, he said. “It’s a changing, dynamic situation. But our goal is to minimize the impact on the public.”

Redecking of the northbound bridge is scheduled to end in mid-October. Until then, the bumps will remain, moving forward as work progresses, Hurley said.

In a region of declining population, the island is one of the few with a little growth, increasing by about 2 percent from 18,621 residents a decade ago to 19,024. People want to build their homes and live there, surrounded by the Niagara River and gentle pastures inland.

Idyllic, yes, except when you try to leave the island or return.

The Thruway Authority recently announced that work on the south bridges will take a holiday over the Fourth of July weekend. Contractors will suspend operations on both of the south bridges from Friday morning until Tuesday evening.

Then reality returns. The northbound span for vehicles entering the island will close at night so crews can work overnight to replace the deck. The southbound bridge picks up the slack, handling two-way traffic —with the rubber dividers — until 6 a. m.

This has been life on the island since the spring, when the redecking started in earnest. The project also involves replacing the barrier and sidewalk on the northbound span.

It seems like forever to people who use the bridges. But even without the long backups due to construction, traffic over the bridge has been increasing for years.

In the last couple of years alone, the volume has risen to between 71,000 and 78,000 vehicles a day crossing the bridge, as much as 25 percent over capacity, according to the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. It increases during the summer, which Hurley said is another reason for all the problems.

The worse-than-ever congestion on the bridges is a big topic all around the island. Take Supercuts on Grand Island Boulevard.

“I deal with it every day,” said Samantha Morrison, clipping the hair of a male client. Although he was pretty quiet, she said most of her clients gripe about it all the time.

Morrison, who lives in Buffalo, feels their pain. “I come over [the bridge] every day,” she said. “It takes me forever. It’s very frustrating.”

Across the island’s northern boundary, Niagara County tourism officials are worried about the impact on business. John Percy, president and chief operating officer for the Niagara Tourism and Conventions Corp., is recommending alternative routes.

“It’s frustrating,” said Percy, who crossed the bridge after a 30-minute wait.

The work, officials said, was inevitable. The south bridges were built in the late 1930s, when the island’s population was about 1,000 and motor vehicle traffic was a fraction of today’s levels.

The last time new decking was installed was the 1960s, Hurley said, although a 3- inch overlay was installed in the 1980s, causing lane closures and delays.

A bridge’s deck has a life span of 40 to 50 years, Hurley said. There are also the periodic painting projects, such as the one that lasted from 1999 to 2004.

For the current project, the Thruway and the contractor, American Bridge Co. of Coraopolis, Pa., hope that the improvements to the bumps will make the trip across the northbound bridge smoother. To make the transition between the old and new surface, the movable steel plates are now longer, so navigating them is more like driving up and down a ramp.

Hurley said it would be great to get rid of the bump-warning signs. “But from a legal standpoint, it’s required,” he said.

McMahon said he hopes the new, improved bumps do the trick. The number of vehicles traversing the bridge dropped from 3,500 an hour to 2,500 in recent days because drivers slowed, sometimes to a stop, when they saw the bumps.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, whose district includes Grand Island, said that to a certain extent those who live on the island must simply learn to endure.

“I’m not unsympathetic,” Hoyt said. “But you live on a island. You have to cross a bridge. Bridges get old, and they have to be repaired. It is for the public’s safety.”

Malpica, the Grand Island mother and teacher, wishes they would just get it done. She loves Grand Island but is developing a case of island fever.

“If I need to go the Boulevard Mall, I won’t go,” she said. “It feels like being trapped.”