Soon, and for the first time since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Bleinheim will once again lay claim to being home to the longest single-span wooden covered bridge in the world. Town Supervisor Don Airey said the $6.7 million Federal Emergency Management Agency funded project to replace the historic Bleinheim Bridge is about "75 to 80 percent" complete.
He said the bridge replacement has to be placed, using a system of jacks, onto newly constructed bridge abutments about 12 feet higher than the ones used for the original bridge that was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.
"FEMA is huge on mitigation, so, in other words, if FEMA is going to invest money, compensatory funding for flood losses, losses in general that are covered by FEMA, they want to see how we are going to mitigate this problem. They don't want to keep spending money over and over again," he said.
Getting FEMA to fund the bridge replacement in the first place was not easy. Schoharie County, which owns the bridge, was initially told by FEMA officials that the bridge was a unique historic artifact, and as such was irreplaceable and no eligible for FEMA funding after the Irene disaster. After a lengthy series of appeals, FEMA officials were finally convinced to release money for the project due to the bridge's importance to the community as an "alternate meeting place."
The Bleinheim's bridge's importance to the town, with its 400 some residents, is both practical and symbolic. Town trucks have the image of the bridge emblazoned on them. Historically, the bridge has been a gathering place for residents. Airey said the original bridge was one of only two bridges in the United States registered as a national historic landmarks, the other being the Brooklyn Bridge.
"This is a really important icon for our little town. This is the longest single span wooden covered bridge in the world and it's a national historic landmark," he said. "It's a tremendous opportunity again to use the bridge as a tourism driver for the southern part of Schoharie County.
The replacement project has not been without critics, some of whom question why FEMA money should be used to replace a wooden covered bridge.
Airey said false ideas about the FEMA funding have been spread on social media.
"It has been widely rumored on Facebook that somehow the [$6.7 million award] somehow affected invidiual claims. It did not. This is a completely seperate pot of money. This had no impact on any invidual or business claim for FEMA reimbursement. Any money spent on the Bleinheim covered bridge replacement had no impact on any private or business claims, it wasn't like this took money from someone else," he said. "It's sad to see. I understand where they are coming from and they may have an issue with federal funds being spent on something like this, but it certainly did not put anyone else's claims in any type of jeopardy, nor did it subtract from any of those claims. There was never a set figure on what FEMA's compensation will be for a set area."
Once FEMA agreed to fund the bridge replacement, the county hired Cortland-based Economy Paving Co. to be the general contractor for the project. The subcontractor hired to design the wooden bridge, a highly specialized area of design, was New Hampshire-based 3G Construction, owned by Stan Graton.
"Stan is a third-generation, outstanding gentleman in every which way you can think of, who builds covered bridges. He's a timber-rite, and they don't make those guys anymore. He's just an unbelievable character, just a fantastic partner to work with on this project," Airey said.
Once the bridge is in place on the abutments, the flooring and the roofing will be installed and then some cosmetic additions will be made to the location, including landscaping, some flag poles and a kiosk that details the history of the bridge, its destruction and ultimately its replacement.
"After six years, I don't hang my hat on timetables anymore, but reasonably, a good estimate would be the end of June, it should be substantially finished," Airey said.