Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

Nat Karns: The sorry state of Berkshire County bridges

COMMENTARY: A VIEW FROM THE BERKSHIRE REGIONAL PLANNING COMMISSION

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PITTSFIELD — We all rely on bridges every time we travel anywhere, except for maybe down the block. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, over 52 percent of the bridges in Massachusetts are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Our ranking is 49th in the nation on the condition of our bridges. Only Rhode Island is worse.

In Berkshire County, there are 546 bridges, according to the Mass-DOT Bridge Inventory database. (There are probably a number of smaller municipal bridges not in the database yet).

A bridge is by state definition any roadway span of more than 10 feet in length; by federal definition it is a span of more than 20 feet. A culvert is a roadway span of up to 10 feet and can be anything from a simple pipe to a large concrete box culvert. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of culverts in every town and city in the Berkshires; no definitive count exists of culverts nor inventory of their condition.

Focusing on bridges, out of the 546 Berkshire bridges, 364 are owned and maintained by cities and towns and 182 are owned and maintained by MassDOT.

Of the total, 438 bridges are eligible for federal aid funding and 108 must be paid for either with state or local funding. Based on the last five years of state and federal bridge projects in the region, a substantial bridge structure maintenance can cost at a minimum $310,000 and the maximum bridge replacement was $7,630,000.

In an extreme case, the cost of substantially rehabilitating the Hadley Overpass in North Adams, the longest span in Berkshire County, was $24.9 million.

An average bridge rehabilitation or replacement runs about $1.5 million.

Out of the 364 municipal bridges in the Berkshires, 48 (13 percent) are structurally deficient. We do not have data on the number of state-owned bridges which are deficient.

The municipal federal aid bridges have an average condition of 6.5 on a 10-point scale, which is overall “satisfactory” to “good.”

The smaller municipal bridges inspected in the county thus far have an average condition rating of 6.3 (which is “satisfactory”) but 20 percent of these small bridges are structurally deficient.

As a means to address the relatively poor condition of bridges in Massachusetts, MassDOT developed the Accelerated Bridge Program. To date, $2.45 billion has been spent to repair 200 bridges across the state; $24.3 million (1 percent) has been directed towards 15 bridges within our county.

Last year, the state also initiated the municipal small bridge program with $50 million allocated statewide in the first year to address the small municipal bridges which are not eligible for federal funding.

During the 2017 fiscal year that ended in June, almost $1.7 million (3.3 percent of the total available) was allocated to four Berkshire towns to assist them in replacing four deteriorated small bridges.

Although MassDOT and many of our towns and cities have taken steps to address the problem of poor bridge conditions, much more effort is needed.

The inventory and assessment of all bridges must be completed to determine total financial need and simple annual maintenance programs should be in place, such as sealing cracks, washing out debris from under bridge decks and painting for each bridge.

All municipalities and MassDOT should have aggressive maintenance programs for their bridges, since a well-maintained bridge will last much, much longer than a poorly maintained one.

Secondly, the repair and replacement of bridges should also use cost-efficient engineering and construction methods.

But regardless of better maintenance and more cost-efficient approaches, additional funding must be identified and appropriated at the local, state and federal levels.

Nathaniel Karns is executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.


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