Motorists may enjoy driving across the new Boling Bridge on Lake Lanier, but for boaters under the structure spanning the Chestatee River, all isn’t smooth sailing.
The issue centers around the elevation of a concrete block known as a footing that extends outward from each of the bridge’s columns supporting the structure. The bridge is off Dawsonville Highway/Ga. 53 at the Hall-Forsyth County line.
“As soon as the water (level) gets to around the top of (the footing), it’s hard to see,” said Clyde Morris, attorney for Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association. “When the water is over it and (the footing) is underwater, you can’t see it at all, and that’s a boating hazard.”
During a visit by The Times to the bridge on Monday, April 22, when the lake was at 1,073.51 feet above sea level, at least one of the footings was underwater. The lake’s summer full pool is 1,071 feet and winter full pool is 1070 feet.
“I’d say they ought to have it up higher than 1,077, maybe at 1,078 feet,” Morris said.
The contract with the bridge builder, Scott Bridge, called for footings to be poured 1 foot above summer full pool, or at 1,072 feet, Georgia Department of Transportation district spokeswoman Katie Strickland said.
“However, as we worked with the contractor, a supplemental agreement was (reached) to go 2 feet above full pool,” she said.
The elevation was settled on by the contractor, DOT and Army Corps of Engineers, Strickland said.
The footings ended up with an elevation of 1,073.19 to 1,073.48 feet.
“We had our survey team shoot them with a laser instrument, and those were the findings,” Strickland said.
The DOT said it’s working to better pinpoint the footings by temporarily hanging orange construction barrels — the ones you find at road construction projects — above them from the bottom of the bridge.
The barrels “were placed to help delineate where the … footings are located,” Strickland said.
Reflective signs saying “Stay 20 feet clear” “will be installed in the next few weeks on the columns,” she said.
The no-wake zone that was in place during construction — meaning boaters could travel at idle speeds only while near the bridge — was still in place last week.
At some point, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the corps “will jointly re-evaluate and determine … whether the no-wake zone stays or is removed,” said Mark McKinnon, spokesman for DNR’s Law Enforcement Division.
Still, even while idling, hitting one of the footings can cause a lot of damage to a boat, said Joanna Cloud, Lake Lanier Association’s executive director.
“This is a personal property concern, a personal safety concern,” she said.
Morris described the reflective signs as “merely a good first step” and that he would like to see “some type of guard put up there, so boats simply cannot get hung up there.”
He said he would like to see the same design not repeated in future bridge projects, including Browns Bridge, which runs along Browns Bridge Road/Ga. 369 and is also at the Hall-Forsyth line.
The $27.2 million replacement of Browns Bridge is about halfway complete, Strickland said. It is scheduled to be finished April 30, 2020.
That project also has run afoul with boaters, who have complained on social media that their vessels were damaged by construction materials that were underwater.
“That raised the urgency issue (about boating safety)” on the lake, and prompted a meeting between the lake group and DOT, Morris said.
The Lake Lanier Association “is working with GDOT to devise appropriate solutions for the (footings) at both Boling Bridge and Browns Bridge,” he said.
Strickland said she learned about the Browns Bridge incident through someone posting boat damage photos on Facebook.
“However, I do not know of any damage claim forms the (DOT) had received,” she said.
Strickland did note the elevation for the top of the footers at Browns Bridge will be 1074.5 feet.
Boling and Browns bridges are part of a string of bridges on Lanier being replaced by the DOT. The bridges date back to the 1950s, when the lake was being built by the corps.