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Grosse Ile bridge to remain closed at least another year after severe erosion of piers found

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Grosse Ile — The Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge will remain closed until at least fall of 2021 after engineers last week discovered significant erosion of its support piers, officials said Friday.

The Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

The bridge has been closed since May 2020, after a November 2019 inspection revealed the need for emergency decking repairs, leaving one vehicular access point to the island township of 10,000 residents for the past six months.  

"The engineering consultants for Wayne County conducted a routine underwater inspection last week of the piers supporting the Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge over the Trenton Channel and discovered severe erosion," said Tiffani C. Jackson, spokeswoman for Wayne County's Department of Public Services, in an email to The Detroit News.

The piers must be repaired before the bridge can reopen, she said. The Wayne County Department of Public Services is working with engineering consultants to determine a time frame for the repairs.  

The Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge is closed to traffic, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

"At this time, we anticipate the bridge will remain closed until fall 2021, if not longer," Jackson wrote.

The extended shutdown means motorists will have to keep using the Grosse Ile Toll Bridge to get on and off the island, township supervisor Brian Loftus said. That privately owned bridge charges $5 per crossing and will remain the only way to and from Grosse Ile other than watercraft and aircraft.

"For the most part, residents have adjusted to using only" the second span connecting the island to the mainland, he told The Detroit News. "They’re not happy about it, but that’s where we are. We knew there was going to be more work on the bridge.

"... It’s out of our hands, but from the township's perspective, it’s been frustrating."

For now, Township Trustee James Budny said, "there really is no change to the township. We’ve been operating with one bridge and that’s all we can do. The opening of the bridge would just give us two ways to get on and off. We’ll have to continue with one way until it’s fixed. That is part of living on an island."

Some residents, however, wonder about the long-term effects on everything from deliveries to school-of-choice students.

"You're going to have people that are going to be inconvenienced relative to time, relative to expenses," said Craig Pilkington, who leads Opportunity Grosse Ile, a community organization. "It affects just about every portion of island life to some degree."

Before the most recent inspection, the bridge was last inspected in June, Jackson said. That inspection "revealed some erosion to the piers; however, the erosion was not as severe as what the recent report identified," she said in an email.

Township officials are expected to meet with the county and project consultants next week for more details about the required repairs, Budny said.

According to a June 2020 report obtained from the county by a Grosse Ile group through a Freedom of Information Act request, "the piers are in poor condition. In particular, the original even numbered piers … have consistent defects in both the concrete footings and the timber cribbing." 

A Michigan Department of Transportation recommendation included in the report said: "The moderate to advanced deterioration of the even-numbered piers founded on timber cribbing is exacerbated by harsh site conditions consisting of high current flow, likely debris collisions, and seasonal freeze/thaw cycles. As this deterioration will likely progress if left unattended, it is recommended that these substructure units be programmed for complete renovation."

Jackson said the county conducts underwater inspections of the span every six months and "will continue at 6-month intervals until the pier work begins."   

She said it's unclear how much the repair work will cost and how it will be funded.

"The County is working with our engineering consultants to determine the proper course of action to address the pier erosion; therefore, the expected repair cost has yet to be determined," Jackson wrote.

The bridge was closed for repairs and rehabilitation on May 6 and had been expected to reopen in December. The work briefly overlapped with construction on two nearby bridges.

Loftus said he believes daily traffic on the toll bridge has more than doubled since the Parkway closure.

"It does take a little longer because you have more people using it, but our residents adapted," Budny added.

Representatives with the Grosse Ile Bridge Company, which operates the toll crossing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night on the possible impact of the Parkway bridge's extended shutdown.

Bill Heil, president of the Grosse Ile Civic Association, noted the costs for drivers using the toll bridge can quickly add up, and having only one access point has a ripple effect.  

"There’s inconvenience that accrues from this," said Heil, who has lived on the island for more than 20 years. "You’re certainly grateful when things change."

The closure has already affected businesses such as Smokies on the Water, a restaurant on the island near the bridge. 

Manager Kim Gronda said with only one bridge open, fewer regulars from the other side are likely to venture out as they did before, it's harder to attract workers who live off the island, and the tolls dissuade some drivers for online food delivery services.

"It's drastically affected our business, then add COVID on top of it all," she said.

A nine-day emergency shutdown of the Parkway bridge in November 2019 prompted hourlong back-ups at the toll bridge and reports of road-rage incidents, though toll bridge company owner Paul Smoke said at the time that the backups and tempers eased after a few days.

Opened for traffic in 1932 and reconstructed in 2007, what's commonly known as the "free bridge" was built for railroad use in 1873. Its brief closure in 2019 came after an inspection that led to the installation of 10 steel plates supporting four floor beams.

The toll bridge typically handles about 25% of traffic across the channel. 

The Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.