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Officials: Cheboygan County bridge needs replacement, ASAP

Cement from the underside of the Orchard Beach Bridge in Cheboygan County erodes into Black River May, 2023.
Cheboygan County Sheriff
Cement from the underside of the Orchard Beach Bridge in Cheboygan County erodes into Black River May, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Cheboygan Co. Sheriff)

County officials say the Orchard Beach Bridge is in need of replacement before a closure causes significant re-routing for emergency services.

The crossing, which spans the Black River, is located near scenic farmland in Benton Township. The Cheboygan County Road Commission estimates nearly 1,000 vehicles use the bridge per day.

Underneath the county road, large chunks of concrete have fallen in the river while support cables are exposed and corroding.

“This is not just another pet-local project.”
Sharen Lange
Cheboygan Economic Development Coordinator

Cheboygan Economic Development Coordinator Sharen Lange said the bridge is beyond repair.

“Over the years, cracks have formed and now big chunks are falling off like rubble. So, every time there's a break in that cement casing, you have erosion,” Lange said. “We're getting to a point where we have rapid deterioration. Before, we could limp along and patch it. [But], there's no way we can patch those cement casings on the uprights.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation conducted its most recent annual survey of the bridge in August and rated it 2 on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being most hazardous.

A vital link

Just a half mile away on the east side of the bridge, the Fire Department for the small village of Alverno contains important equipment for fighting forest fires and jaws of life.

Alverno Fire Chief Ron Fenlon said four of his firemen live on the west side of the crossing — meaning, if the bridge should fail, they would have to travel an extra eight miles to the next crossing to get to the fire hall.

Fenlon says that means minutes added to response times.

“The importance of that bridge is the minutes that save lives. Without it, it's going to cost at some point in time,” Fenlon said. “I pray to God it doesn't, but it's going to cost somebody … possibly their life.”

In a press release, Cheboygan County Sheriff Tim Cook emphasized the importance of fire and rescue.

“Law enforcement relies heavily on the fire department to secure and make sure a scene is safe,” he said.

Getting the money

The bridge has been in critical condition for almost four years and has been a top priority for the county road commission.

But Lange said the county has had difficulty securing funding because it services a county road in a rural area. In October, the county applied for and failed to get a Federal Resurfacing Grant.

The cost to replace the bridge is estimated at $7.3 million.

If the county financed the whole project it would take “the entire annual operating budget," Lange said. “Even though we do have some money saved aside that we could use to help in that grant process with a match or with some funds, to cut a check is not feasible for our county.”

On Dec. 27, state Sen. John Damoose and state Rep. Cam Cavitt met with local leaders to discuss other funding possibilities within the state. The state Department of Transportation plans to ask the federal government for grant funding in February.

Lange says she’s concerned the bridge could fail faster than the government's timeline to fund repairs but is encouraged by the support from state officials.

The impact on public health and safety in our county are really good indicators of the urgency,” she said. “This is not just another pet-local project.”

The road commission says it's collecting signatures for a letter of support to improve chances for federal funding.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.