Feds to pay for new Blenheim Bridge
By Jim Poole
Destroyed by Irene four years ago, the Blenheim Bridge is coming back.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to pay $5.8 million for a replacement of the historic covered bridge, county officials learned over the weekend.
"It's the final green light for a replica of the Blenheim Bridge," said Bill Cherry, Schoharie County's flood recovery coordinator.
"It means the bridge is really going back."
The bridge will be the same size and same design, Mr. Cherry said.
Many believed a replacement bridge is a key piece to Blenheim's recovery from Irene. The plan was to have it as a public gathering place, as the bridge was used several times for an art show before Irene.
In the early going, however, FEMA steadfastly refused to approve funding.
"There was a time when FEMA privately said, 'No way, no how,' " Mr. Cherry said.
He credited Ron Simmons of Simmons Recovery and Don Airey, chairman of Blenheim's Long-Term Recovery Committee, for being persistent.
Mr. Airey found similar recovery projects for public places around the country that FEMA had funded, Mr. Cherry said. Mr. Airey and Mr. Simmons helped convince FEMA that the Blenheim Bridge should qualify, too.
FEMA relented a bit and granted $150,000 for a conceptual design for the bridge. During that study, necessary permits were obtained from the Department of Environmental Conservation, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Transportation, "and you name it," Mr. Cherry said.
And the conceptual study indicated that the bridge could be built.
Mr. Cherry and Mr. Airey were at odds over replacing the bridge at first but eventually joined forces.
"I fought for it. It was my passion," Mr. Airey said. "I'm overjoyed with the prospect of continuing to work with Bill."
He sees the new bridge as an attraction that will fit with the county's new Beverage Trail and Blenheim projects funded by New York Rising.
"This is not just recovery, this is going beyond recovery," Mr. Airey said.
"We're going to use that bridge as a gathering place."
Because the permits are in place, the process can move quickly. They've already contracted with GPI, an engineering firm that will sub-contract with a company experienced in rebuilding covered bridges.
Admitting he was only estimating, Mr. Cherry said construction bids could be awarded in February and March, and construction could begin in spring or summer.
And it's possible the bridge could be finished by the end of next year, Mr. Cherry said.
Although the bridge will be the same design as its predecessor, it will be 12 to 15 feet higher for protection from flooding.
That's an essential part of the rebuilding, Mr. Airey said.
"We still have a long way to go," he added, including figuring out what to do with the pieces of the original bridge that are stored in a nearby barn.
While Mr. Airey praised Mr. Cherry and Mr. Simmons, he also thanked his Recovery Committee for supporting him and former Blenheim Supervisor Bob Mann for backing the project in its early stages.