NO.bridge.adv.01.jpg

The U.S. 11 bridge is pictured where it meets the north shore south of Slidell. The bridge will remain closed until at least October, DOTD officials said recently.

The U.S. 11 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, which closed to traffic in January as part of a $28.6 million overhaul, will remain closed six months longer than anticipated, according to the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The delay is the result of additional structural work that had not been anticipated, said Scott Boyle, assistant district administrator of operations for the New Orleans District.

He said that rehabilitating the movable parts of spans that open for marine traffic is "very complicated" and involves structural, mechanical and electrical work.

"When you get into doing these things, you discover other issues, unexpected issues," he said.

The delay has frustrated business owners along U.S. 11 and commuters who use the bridge as a route to and from New Orleans, who were originally told that the project would last less than four months.

Neil Ponstein, who owns a bait, tackle and convenience store on the highway, estimated a 30 percent loss in business since the closure. 

"It's discouraging, frustrating, all those different adjectives," he said.

DOTD initially said the bridge would be closed until April 18, and a digital sign along U.S. 11 announced that as the reopening date. Later, a new date of June 12 appeared. But several weeks ago that sign was quietly removed, business owners along the corridor said.

The 91-year-old drawbridge was the first vehicle bridge to span the lake. Its overhaul includes concrete and structural repairs, replacing the grid deck and bridge operator's house, and a complete replacement of the electrical and mechanical parts that open and close the bridge for boats.

The contractor, American Bridge Co., began work last August. 

The project includes work done from the water, which means the state has to have Coast Guard approval, Boyle said. The original approval expires in June, so the state will seek an extension.

Another complicating factor is hurricane season. The bridge serves as an evacuation route, and Boyle said the contractor will have to be able to move off the bridge quickly if a storm is approaching so that the bridge can be used for people leaving the area.

"That's one of the things we are looking at. Can we get (the contractor) off in a day or a few days' notice if we have to," Boyle said.

In the meantime, business owners who rely on the bridge traffic are looking at a dry spell.

Robann Page, manager of the Circle K on U.S. 11, said the store relies on the bridge to bring traffic into the area and customers who buy gas or coffee on their way to work.

Some people prefer to take the U.S. 11 bridge but are having to take the Interstate 10 twin spans instead. "That's where it really hits us," she said.

Commuters who prefer that route aren't the only ones affected. When there's an accident or breakdown on the twin spans, the lack of a ready alternate route means sitting in traffic.

Sarah Schultz, who commutes from Slidell to a job in the Central Business District, said it took her two hours to get to work recently when there was an accident on the twin spans.

Ponstein's family, which operates its original store location in Chalmette, bought the property on U.S. 11 about four years ago, he said, only to find traffic affected by highway construction work that ended about a year ago. Now the bridge is completely closed.

Arthur Gutierrez, manager and partner at The Docks, a restaurant, said the bridge actually began closing for repair work in November and has probably been open only about 10 days since then.

He's seen about a 40 percent decline in business and has reduced hours as a result.

The biggest loss is commuters who stopped for dinner on weekday evenings. Gutierrez, who lives near the restaurant, said that was his family's routine as well, since his children attend school on the south shore.

"It's my restaurant, and I don't even go," since the closure, Gutierrez said. "I understand what's going on, because I do it. It has 100 percent affected my business."


Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.