Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

Weak, rusting bridges rattle some nerves

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Residents of the Berkshires are well aware that the bridges in their lives have, well, issues.

“This bridge?” asked Donna Mooney, who lives a stone’s throw from the Cottage Street bridge in Great Barrington. 

“The way the railings and everything are rusted ... makes me nervous, especially when I’m walking by with my grandchildren,” said Mooney, who has lived in Great Barrington her whole life.

She knows that if the bridge fails, it could be a long wait for a fix. “If it falls in, it’ll take them three years to fix it,” she said.

The Cottage Street bridge, like nearly 50 others in Berkshire County, has been classified as structurally deficient by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

A bridge’s three main elements — deck, superstructure and substructure — are rated on a scale from 0 to 9. It is considered structurally deficient if any of those three elements receives a rating of 0 to 4.

The Cottage Street bridge’s superstructure, which supports the bridge deck, has been rated a 4. 

Holly Hunter worries about her children living next to the Hungerford Street Bridge over the West Branch of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield.

“Just knowing that my children are going to grow up here — I would feel a little bit better knowing it was structurally sound,” she said. “It makes me nervous.”

The concrete barriers on the bridge also detract from a view of the river, said Hunter, who grew up in the home she and her husband and children live in.

The Hungerford Street bridge’s superstructure is also rated a 4. The bridge was built in 1935 and never reconstructed.

“It’s falling right apart,” said David Graziola, who works up the street from the bridge at Ironman Machine, a manufacturing shop.

Matt Bertoldi has lived across the street from Ironman Machine for 25 years. As he sipped coffee in front of his home one recent Friday morning, Bertoldi recalled when heavy trucks used to drive over the street’s bridges, before weight limits were put up.

“They were deteriorating the bridges quite a bit,” he said. “You’re pushing the limits of the bridge.”

Nonetheless, Bertoldi said he’s optimistic about the bridges in Berkshire County as a whole.

“They do a lot of bridges over, they really have,” he said of repair crews. “There’s a few that need [help], but they’re getting to them.”

Jeff Gagnon bought his home on Hungerford Street about a year ago. 

He knows the bridge over the West Branch of the river has problems, but said they don’t affect him. “It hasn’t fallen in yet,” he said.

If that bridge were to close, the street would become a dead end — and property values in the neighborhood might actually rise, he said.

“[But] I don’t want anything to close,” he added.

The Chapel Street Bridge over Greenwater Brook in Lee is scheduled for replacement in the spring. Resident Gary Lane says he hasn’t noticed any deterioration, but the state held a meeting about the bridge not long ago at the town hall. 

“Three people showed up,” Lane said. “The ones that live here.”

The 33-foot bridge provides the only access to the main road for three houses, including Lane’s. Its superstructure has been rated a 3 — serious condition that describes loss of section and deterioration. 

Pittsfield span

John Sykes can see another one of the county’s structurally deficient bridges — the Elm Street Bridge in Pittsfield — from the door of George’s Liquor Store, where he’s worked since 1995.

He pointed toward a spot in the deck of the bridge, speaking during a lull between customers on a busy afternoon.

“Water seeped through it for three months,” he said. “If it was structurally insecure, I would not be surprised.”

Andy Mick, a Realtor and former publisher of The Eagle, can see the concrete chipping off the bridge from his office on Elm Street.

“The infrastructure around town — I mean, you see a lot of things that look like they’re aging a little bit,” he said.

The Elm Street Bridge’s problem lies with its superstructure — also rated a 4.

“In the winter, we could see icicles dripping from underneath the bridge,” said Maria Vasquez, a teacher in the Pittsfield Public Schools. Her apartment is next to the bridge.

“You can tell it’s old,” she said. “It’s a well-known fact that America’s bridges are out of date.”

Over by Onota Lake in Pittsfield, Jason Laforest is used to seeing a temporary bridge on Lakeway Drive. His home looks out onto the lake.

“I don’t know if they’re replacing it or not,” said Laforest, a Great Barrington police officer.

The temporary bridge has been up for the whole time he has lived in the house.

“I don’t think about it much,” he said. “It’s just kind of there.”

Ryan Rustay walks over the bridge on a regular basis with his 6-year-old daughter.

He doesn’t have any concerns about its safety.

“I can see how it’s built,” he said during a trip to Sportsman’s Cafe at the intersection of Pecks Road and Lakeway Drive. “It’s a temporary bridge.”

To Rustay, it’s just a matter of time until the bridge needs permanent work.

“It works for now, but eventually they’re going to have to do something,” he said. “That’s the only inlet and outlet to that entire neighborhood.”

Every now and then, Faith Phillips has seen pieces of one bridge in Sheffield fall off.

She lives on Berkshire School Road, where the road’s bridge over Schenob Brook is posted for load. Pieces of concrete have come loose from the railings, revealing bare, rusted metal. 

“I’ve known they have to be worked on for years,” she said of the local bridges. 

Nancy Shmulsky worries that the bridge is too narrow, especially for school buses and large trucks that frequently travel over it.

“They need to fix it. There’s absolutely no question in my mind about it,” she said. “The longer they let it slide, the more problems there will be.”

Shmulsky remembered walking over the bridge with two younger brothers as a child — it was safe for kids then, she said.

Down in New Marlborough, Richard DeMarco has seen it all.

He’s owned his home on Hadsell Street for many years and has seen the area’s bridges fall into disrepair.

“This has been going on forever,” he said. 

The Hadsell Street bridge’s deck and superstructure have been rated a 4 — poor condition — by the state.

“It’s been in structural decline for 20 years,” said DeMarco, who long owned a Christmas tree business on his property.

DeMarco has been writing letters to state officials for at least 20 years regarding the condition of bridges in his neighborhood.

He showed copies of the letters to The Eagle in his home on a recent rainy Monday.

The Hadsell Street bridge in particular suffered the effects of large trucks disregarding posted weight limits in their efforts to get across town more efficiently, he said.

“It seems, all of a sudden now, there’s a big push to fix [bridges],” he said. “All the bridges are falling in — they don’t have a choice. They have to fix them. To me, it’s no big thing. I’m used to it now.”

From south to north, residents of Berkshire County keep a weather eye peeled, when it comes to aging bridges.

Wayne Tovani said he drives over the structurally deficient Route 2 bridge over the Hoosic River in North Adams every day with no problems. He and his wife both work in Williamstown.

His neighbor, David Lewis, was living in the same home on Clark Street in North Adams when the 181-foot bridge was reconstructed in the 1950s.

“I don’t have any problem with it,” he said of the steel-truss span, with its ailing superstructure. “It needs a paint job.”

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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