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Falls won’t be shut off until 2019 or later, parks official says

NIAGARA FALLS – The regional head of the state parks system said Wednesday that the American side of Niagara Falls won’t be shut off until 2019 at the earliest. But since no funding has been lined up for demolition and replacement of two pedestrian bridges leading to Goat Island, no firm schedule is possible.

Mark W. Thomas said at a news conference that there is no alternative, given modern safety and design regulations, to dewatering the American Falls while work is done to replace the existing bridges.

“The dewatering is not an end but a means,” Thomas told a crowd of about 90 during a public hearing Wednesday night in the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls.

When the current spans were built in 1901, cofferdams were built to block the water flow. “They were earthen and timber, and when they were done, they just pulled stuff out and let it go over the Falls. There’s no way we can do that anymore today,” Thomas said.

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The Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, which carry 85 percent of the water now, would carry 100 percent during the American Falls’ shutdown. If the preferred two-year construction schedule is followed, the U.S. side of the Falls will be dewatered only for five months, August through December. A one-year construction schedule, which would require a 24-7 work schedule, would shut off the American Falls from April to December.

The bridges – a 424-foot span from the mainland to Green Island, and a 245-foot bridge from Green Island to Goat Island – have been closed twice because of deterioration, once in 2004 and once in 2013. The bridges are now covered with temporary steel structures. Once used for traffic, including the State Park trolley, the spans are now restricted to pedestrian use only, except for parks administrative vehicles.

Regular auto traffic uses the American Rapids Bridge, whose entrance is off First Street in Niagara Falls, to enter Goat Island. That bridge, built in 1965, is not part of the reconstruction plan and has sidewalks for pedestrians.

“Goat Island will not be closed down,” Thomas vowed.

But to make sure that doesn’t happen, the utilities that serve Goat Island must be moved, because the pedestrian bridges currently carry the electric supply and phone lines to the island. Craig Mozrall, a state Department of Transportation special projects manager, said a contract is being let to move the utilities to the American Rapids Bridge.

Thomas said the agency’s preferred design alternative is a pair of precast concrete bridges that look similar to the existing ones. But there are other choices, including a steel girder bridge, which would have a lower profile above the water, and a steel arch bridge, with a pair of arches on each bridge.

The precast concrete bridge and the steel girder bridge each would cost about $24 million, while the arch bridge would cost about $34 million.

Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, who used to be a State Parks employee, said the arch bridge looks very similar to the style of the wooden bridges that connected Goat Island to the mainland from 1856 to 1900. They were replaced by the current concrete bridges 115 years ago, as State Parks implemented the vision of park designer Frederick Law Olmsted for bridges over the upper rapids of the river.

Guy Christopher of Ransomville said he likes the precast concrete bridges. “I really like the idea of restoring it to keep with Frederick Law Olmsted’s design,” he said.

“I think I like the one with the high arches that’s reminiscent of the bridges of the 19th century. I think it’s the most aesthetically pleasing,” said Jeff Sicurella of Niagara Falls.

Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster disagreed, casting his vote for precast concrete. With the arches, Dyster said, “You have a visual distraction … You want to see the brink of the Falls, not the arches.”

The new bridges, whichever style is chosen, will have pilings drilled all the way to bedrock. That’s another reason for dewatering the Falls, since State Parks technicians say in their 131-page report that such work can’t be done except in dry conditions.

One listed construction option is to move the bridge connecting the mainland to Green Island about 75 feet downstream, so the old bridges can continue carrying pedestrians while the new ones are built.

Thomas said the slope on the existing bridge doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so a less steep design is needed.

According to the preliminary design report, the new bridge, whichever design is chosen by State Parks later this year, will be slightly wider than the current ones. There will continue to be two 10-foot traffic lanes, but there will be two-foot shoulders on each side, and the sidewalks will be 10 feet wide instead of the current eight feet.

The full report and renderings are posted on the State Parks website. Written comments will be accepted until Feb. 10.

The worldwide interest in shutting off the Falls has local leaders excited. “I haven’t seen this much attention since Nik Wallenda walked across the Falls, which is a good thing,” Ceretto said, referring the daredevil’s high-wire walk in 2012.

John Percy, president of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said the timeline “gives us ample enough time to put the proper strategic plan in place … to make sure we are getting the proper messaging out and really hit the world on target with this exciting news throughout the ‘dry’ process.”

Joseph L. Leone Jr., a Niagara Falls attorney, said he hopes so. He tried to earn money for college by driving sightseeing tours in the summer of 1969, when the water to the American Falls was shut off so the Army Corps of Engineers could inspect the stability of the Falls.

Leone recalled, “That was the worst summer ever. The guys I used to work with played Wiffle Ball most of the summer.”

Dyster said that with today’s social media, the dry Falls could be a trending topic, as long as it didn’t last too long.

“People who visited here once before, who might not have come back, might return to see something different,” the mayor said.

email: tprohaskas@buffnews.com