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Construction starts on Bay City bridge worksite

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Bay City, Mich.
Bay City's Liberty Bridge opens to allow river shipping and closes to allow people to cross the Saginaw River, but its movement has become increasingly unreliable.

Workers began arriving in Bay City this week to start repair work on one of the aging drawbridges spanning the Saginaw River.

Bridges in the city have become increasingly unreliable. Electrical problems have been interrupting their opening and closing. That cuts off ships from their ports and city residents from their homes and jobs.

The river is an important shipping channel in Michigan. Barges and boats carrying cement, gravel and wind turbine blades rely on the bridge opening to get their products to and from shore.

Over the winter, Saginaw Bay freezes, so shipping stops. The U.S. Coast Guard is giving constructor Bay City Bridge Partners until April to work on the bridge while it’s closed to ships.

Kevin Bischel, the project director for the construction company, said that probably won’t be quite long enough to finish the work.

“It’s complicated, for sure,” he said. “With COVID and the supply-chain issues -- we think we have a good handle on deliveries, and we’ve ordered things months in advance, but you never know when -- you don’t have something in your hand until it actually gets delivered.”

Bischel said if the work isn’t done by April, the bridge position will switch: It will be closed to cars and open to ships.

Within about a year, he said, he expects the Liberty Bridge to be operating reliably, and work will start on replacing the Independence Bridge a mile downriver.

“Hopefully, the bridges are not in the news or on people’s minds, and they’re just safe and reliable and people use them without even having to worry about them,” he said.

Bischel and city leaders said the work is important, but it’s also expensive. Tolls are planned to recoup the tens of millions of dollars it will cost to repair and replace the bridges.

People who don’t live in Bay City will pay $2 to cross, according to the company’s plan. Bay City residents will pay $0.50.

Federal assessments show a quarter of Michigan’s bridges are in disrepair. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the national infrastructure bill signed earlier this month will deliver half a billion dollars to rehabilitate them.