Goat Island to remain open throughout project
By Terry Duffy
In coming years, area residents and visitors to Niagara Falls will be able experience a truly unique event - if plans announced this week hold true.
Officials from the state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation revealed their intent this week to again dewater the riverbed area above the American Falls - and the falls itself - in order to replace two bridges: one stretching from the mainland to Goat Island; the other Green Island to Goat Island.
The same area was dewatered in the summer of 1969 by the then Elia Construction Co. of Niagara Falls to enable Army Corps studies for erosion of the riverbed and the base of the American Falls, and to help set future management strategies by the International Joint Commission.
At a public hearing Wednesday at the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls, plans were released calling for a damming to occur once again at the mouth of the Goat Island channel. The purpose this time would be to allow for removal and construction of the early 1900s-era concrete arch bridges linked to the time of Frederick Law Olmsted, which have long since deteriorated beyond repair.
Over past years, the bridges remained open for vehicular and pedestrian use, stabilized by means of a truss-type structure, installed in 2004 and similar in design to the temporary Bailey Bridges used by the military.
The news of the dewatering by State Parks appeared to impress many, and awed others who witnessed the first dewatering in 1969.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster likened the plans for another shutoff to the historic 2011 crossing of tightrope daredevil Nik Wallenda.
John Percy, president and CEO of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., said, "The anticipation of this event for the future ... this will mean huge crowds.
"It's getting the right message out to the world."
"When this was done in 1969, we didn't have the channels of the social media networks and the 24-hour news channels to get this message out to the world," Percy continued. "It's, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This will only happen once ... it could only happen one more time. So come capture, experience it."
Mark Thomas, western district director of State Parks, said officials are considering three options for replacement:
•A steel tied-arch bridge concept, utilizing two steel arch ribs, floor beams and steel tie girders as the bridges' primary structural elements, with piers anchored in the river bedrock.
Similar to the Whipple Truss bridges built in the rapids in 1856, plans call for a 24-foot wide roadway, with a 10-foot-wide sidewalk to be located on both sides of the bridge outside the arches.
•A steel multigirder bridge, employing steel girders as the bridge's structural element. Three spans would be included in the design, with piers anchored in the bedrock. A roadway and adjoining sidewalks with widths similar to above example would be featured.
•A precast arch bridge, similar to the existing bridge setup in line and form. The new bridge would be wider than the original with slightly higher arches and would feature extended piers to provide for an overlook for visitors.
Width dimensions of the roadway and adjoining sidewalks would be similar as the two other bridge options.
All designs would include aesthetic qualities consistent with the area's historic and natural park setting. Thomas forecasted a construction cost of "approximately $26 million."
"It doesn't include the final design or contract or administration costs," he said. "When you put it all together, it will be in the neighborhood of approximately $30 million."
Thomas said a 2019 timeframe for the dewatering and construction work is possible for the project. He explained work could be done in either six or nine months, depending on the type of bridge design ultimately chosen.
He added any design choice would ultimately be contingent on funding.
"There's no money in place for that," Thomas said. "We'll continue to look through our state government, federal government, for sources, as well as private. The commissioner and the governor's office, they'll continue to work those details through."
With regard to private sources of funding, "It's not something we generally do at State Parks," Thomas said. "(But) we (do) have all kinds of private fundraising going at State Parks where people have contributed significant sums of money. We have one right here in WNY ... $2 million raised for the electric nature center. ... (This type of) private funding ... is not uncommon."
Thomas said Greenway funding, gleaned from New York Power Authority channels, has already been used to cover preliminary design costs for the project thus far.
"It helped out a lot already," he said.
As far a selecting a design concept, Thomas said State Parks does have its own preference, but that choice would be ultimately be dependent on public input, adding the public hearing and other comment opportunities are intended to gauge opinion on the best option.
"This allows us to put a proper strategic plan in place (to) make sure we are getting the proper messaging out, and that we really hit the world on target and get the message out and continue," Thomas said. "It's a continual plan that we would put into place. I look forward to this time to put together the right strategic plan."
"Our agency prefers ... the precast concrete arches that's there right now," Thomas continued. "It's not the final design, however. We have to look through the different options. At this stage, the preferred parks alternative is that we looking to hear from the public."
He added public input has already been integrated into some of the planning.
Thomas said the design plans and project require a number of approvals, including from the Army Corps and the International Joint Commission, which regulates the water flow of the Great Lakes and Niagara River.
"We have to meet very stringent environmental requirements and safety requirements," Thomas said. "There are a number of requirements we have to meet. They are all part of the planning process."
He and others spoke of the role the public is playing in helping State Parks make an ultimate design choice.
"People really pay attention to Niagara Falls; it holds so much for so many as the symbol of the natural environment," Dyster said. "There's a lot of stakeholders, environmental, tourists, historical preservationists, engineers ... with ideas on how to proceed with the project. I think it's very exciting. The public has the opportunity to see this project and comment on it."
Assemblyman John Ceretto said, "We need to analyze the design approval documents along with State Parks and DOT, as well as hear input from the public to find out what the best option is moving forward. Specifically, we need to ensure that we repair the bridge in a manner that doesn't have a negative impact on tourism or the community.
"I look forward to working with the public, Niagara Falls State Park and all the relevant parties on this project to benefit our tourism industry and develop our economy here in the City of Niagara Falls."
"The American Falls bridge is vital to the tourism industry here in Niagara Falls, but it is long overdue for repairs," Ceretto added.
Thomas emphasized that, if and when dewatering actually occurs, and construction begins, Goat Island would be open and accessible to visitors and remain that way through the process.
"Pedestrian and vehicular access will remain intact throughout. We are looking at other options to get people to Goat Island. I want to say emphatically that Goat Island will always be open," Thomas said.
State Parks will take public commentary on the Niagara Falls bridge plans until Feb. 10. Comments may be sent to:
Mark W. Thomas
Director, Western District, NYSOPRHP
PO Box 1132, Niagara Falls, NY 14303
Attn: Ron Peters
State Parks reveled three designs considered for replacement of the more than 100-year-old concrete arch bridges in the Niagara River channel above the American Falls. Pictured above is one of the concepts, a precast arch bridge. (State Parks photo)