A Schoharie County official said he’s waiting on a routine approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency before work can begin to replace the Blenheim Bridge. The original bridge spanned Schoharie Creek and was the longest surviving covered single-span bridge in the world before it was washed away by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Bill Cherry, the Schoharie County flood recovery coordinator, said he and Greenman-Pedersen Inc., an engineering design and construction firm in Albany, received approval for the bridge replacement plans this month from the county Board of Supervisors, and that he had just put the finishing touches on the approved plans and sent them to the federal agency for final approval.
“You could say the packet is in the mail,” said Cherry.
Cherry believes federal approval will be a routine matter, as FEMA had already invested money in a study to determine if replacing the bridge was even possible and gave its blessing for Schoharie County to hire a company to draw up construction plans.
The agency spent more than $500,000 on those first two phases, and has already agreed to foot 75 percent of the $10.22 million construction price tag, he said. The other 25 percent is coming from the state.
“We believe that FEMA’s approval of that third and final phase is somewhat routine,” said Cherry.
But getting FEMA to agree to replace the bridge took no small amount of prodding from Blenheim residents and Schoharie County officials.
After the covered bridge washed away in 2011, according to Cherry, FEMA told the county that it was a unique historic artifact and as such was irreplaceable. “So they denied any funding at all,” Cherry said.
The county argued that while the bridge was unique and could not be replaced on the National Historic Registry, it was a county-owned centerpiece in the town of Blenheim and a gathering place for community events.
FEMA then said they would replace the bridge with an “alternate meeting space,” said Cherry.
“I presented that option to the Board of Supervisors but the reaction from the Blenheim community was extremely negative; they told the board that was unacceptable,” said Cherry. “The Board of Supervisors said ‘Let’s appeal it even further and try to put up a replacement.’ ”
FEMA relented, and gave the county $150,000 to help them in a quest to secure building permits from a half-dozen agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“So that’s what we did; we took first $150,000 and hired Greenman-Pedersen Inc. to get those six different permits,” said Cherry. “We got those permits and showed it was possible to replace that structure.”
FEMA then released nearly a half-million dollars to the county for the second phase of drawing up the construction documents with Greenman-Pedersen.
“And that’s what we just concluded,” Cherry said.
He and other county officials hope to have FEMA’s approval in four to six weeks, and send the project out to bid sometime in the fall. They hope to begin construction by February or March of 2017, Cherry said.
“Schoharie County doesn’t have a lot of historical landmarks and the Blenheim covered bridge was certainly the jewel in that crown,” said Cherry, on why county officials and Blenheim residents were adamant the bridge be replaced. “We have limited tourism attractions and limited destination points, and Blenheim Bridge was an engineering marvel.”
Ed Snyder with Greenman-Pedersen, who helped Cherry present the plan to the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors earlier this month, explained that the original bridge was unique in that the entire span was really just one 210-foot arch encased in wood.
“So that’s what makes this one somewhat unique, especially being that the arch is completely made of timber,” said Snyder, noting that the unique properties of the old Blenheim covered bridge will be replicated in the replacement bridge.
Snyder added that working on such a unique project and being able to replace the bridge for Blenheim residents and Schoharie County is an honor.
“A lot of our projects are similar bridge or roadway projects,” said Snyder. “This is very unique for us. It’s not every day you get to work on replacing the world’s longest single-span bridge so we’re very proud to be on the team bringing that forward.”
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, email@example.com or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.