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After years of trying to find money to fix bridge, city of Ferrysburg has to close it instead

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Smith's Bridge in Ferrysburg.

Fifty-five bridges in the state of Michigan are closed.

In the small city of Ferrysburg, in Ottawa County on Friday, a crew of workers rolled out the orange barrels and closed the 56th.

All afternoon, a steady stream of cars has been coming down West Spring Lake Road in Ferrysburg, and turning around.

“Look at these people, they’re trying to drive right down to the barricade,” says Steve Van Pelt, who lives near the bridge with his wife Cathy Van Pelt. “And they don’t realize that it’s permanent now.”

City leaders decided earlier this week to close the bridge, out of safety concerns.

Ferrysburg is a small town. Less than 3,000 people live here. The bridge is called Smith’s Bridge. It’s only a few hundred yards long; it crosses a little bayou on the western edge of Spring Lake.

The people in Ferrysburg have known for a long time that this bridge needs work. But if you’re just standing on it, or driving across it, it doesn’t look like a bridge that’s about to fall down.

And when the city came to residents asking them to approve a new millage two years ago, people voted against it two to one.

"It's not just Ferrysburg that uses this," says resident Cathy Van Pelt. "But only Ferrsyburg are the ones that are going to pay for it."

Cathy Van Pelt told me, even living right next to the bridge, she had a hard time supporting the millage. It was an expensive ask, that would add about a hundred bucks to their property taxes each year.

“I think people are sensitive to how much we pay in taxes for everything,” Van Pelt says. “And it’s not just Ferrysburg that uses this. But only Ferrysburg are the ones that are going to pay for it.”

But while the bridge serves more than just Ferrysburg, it doesn’t quite serve enough to get attention from other governments that might help to fix it.

Rebecca Hopp is mayor of Ferrysburg. She says the city has gone to the state, and to the federal government, to ask for help with the $13 million it would cost to rebuild.

“And this is just a small community bridge,” Hopp says. “It’s not like it’s part of US-31 that we’d be able to get some funding in addition, because it would be a federal road.”

After years of trying, and failing, to get the road fixed, the city council voted unanimously on Monday to shut it down to vehicle traffic.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

They did it out of fear that the bridge could collapse suddenly.

But closing it could lead to other safety problems.

Tim O’Donnell is mayor pro-tem of the city. And he also serves on-call for the fire department. He lives right by the bridge.

“Anytime there’s a call, a fire call, I could respond directly from my house to the scene,” O’Donnell says. “And I could be on scene within two to three minutes.”

Now, he says he’ll have to add about five minutes to the drive to go the long way around. And in an emergency response, he says, every minute counts.

At Monday night’s city council meeting, some residents came up during public comment to say they had no idea how desperate the bridge situation was. If they had to do it again, they might vote for a local tax increase to pay for it. 

Cathy Van Pelt says she would.

“The more people you talk to, the more you understand what it really means to people, it creates a real grassroots support,” Van Pelt says.

But even if that money does come through, even if a big truck drove right up to the barricade right now, and dropped off a giant stack of money, that truck still couldn’t drive across Smith’s Bridge. Not for years. Not until all the permitting and construction could finish.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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