Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

Culverts an increasingly costly fix, after repair rules change

Aging infrastructure and expanded regulations add up to an ongoing hassle for Berkshire County highway departments trying to handle failing culverts.

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They’re not bridges. But when culverts fail, their repair costs can be similarly shocking.

“It’d be like one-third of my budget to do one of these repairs,” said Dave Laviolette, highway superintendent for the town of Windsor. “In most cases, where water’s running through them, they need to be engineered. They can’t just be simply replaced.”

Culverts are drains, conduits or pipes allowing water to pass under roads. The metal commonly used in old culverts rusts, contributing to eventual failure. 

“A lot of these facilities are kind of out of sight, out of mind,” said Clete Kus, transportation program manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “So they don’t receive attention until a problem comes up. That’s what we’re seeing as they reach the end of their life expectancy.”

“These culverts are just smaller versions of a bridge,” said Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner at the commission. “They’re starting to show the wear and tear.”

Culverts were typically installed when trucks were less heavy and less frequent on roads, she said.

“Rules and regulations are restricting our [ability] to replace them,” Laviolette said. “Unless they’re totally failed, we don’t replace it.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection tightened regulations for culverts that cross certain bodies of water around 2010. This leads to increased costs to replace them, Kus said.

“We’re talking a couple hundred thousand dollars for a pipe in the ground,” he said.

“Once the [government] started getting involved with this, it just blew the costs of culverts out of proportion,” said Jerry Coppola, superintendent of public works for the town of Richmond.

Years ago, it would cost the town a few hundred dollars or so to replace a small culvert. Now, consultant fees alone can run to $4,000 per culvert replacement project, he said. 

And when old culverts start to rot in the ground, the roads don’t stay in place — they cave in. 

“A lot of these culverts were put in when the roads were only 15, 16 feet wide,” Coppola said.

Over time, towns put extensions on the culverts to accommodate widening roads.

“They’ve all got to be changed out, pretty much,” he said. “They’re all too small.”

In addition to enabling travel over small bodies of water, culverts handle drainage from rain runoff and snowmelt.

In the past, rainwater was absorbed into the ground in undeveloped forests, but modern development changed that, Coppola said. 

“Now you have manicured lawns, big long driveways, big houses,” he said. “It’s making the water table higher ... it comes down to a culvert that was put in 35 years ago that’s not big enough to handle that water.”


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