Massachusetts inspectors seeing increase in small bridges in disrepair
BOSTON — State transportation officials are seeing an increase in the number of small bridges that have fallen into disrepair and are at high risk of full or partial closure because they may not be able to handle vehicle weights and volumes, according to the state's top highway official.
State Highway Administrator Thomas Tinlin testified Thursday in favor of a needs-based, $50 million program proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker to address small municipal bridges that are failing and in need of repairs or full replacements and are not eligible for federal funding.
Tinlin said cities and towns often can't afford to address fixes to bridges that often span 10 to 20 feet but carry significant volumes of traffic.
"Inevitably they come to us looking for help," Tinlin said. "This program, we feel strongly, will help alleviate that burden on them."
There's a "critical need" to address small bridges, Tinlin told the House Bonding Committee, noting state officials inspect all bridges and inspectors have seen firsthand the need for investments.
The five-year small bridge repair program was recommended by the Legislature's Transportation Committee but was not included in a $200 million annual local road and bridge repair bill that cleared the House on Wednesday and is pending before the Senate.
The Senate doesn't plan to take up the road funding bill this week, an aide said Wednesday, although Speaker Robert DeLeo said Wednesday he hoped to get that bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk by Thursday. Local officials are eager to receive notification of road funding amounts.
The bridge program would compete with an array of planned capital projects for limited state bond funds. Authorized projects far exceed the amount available and the state is also nearing its debt ceiling, prompting state officials to mull ways to pay for projects outside that cap while maintaining a fiscally responsible approach to debt.
DeLeo told reporters Wednesday that he has had talks with Baker and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg about the debt ceiling and "possibly paring down some of the bond projects that are ongoing that the governor's looking at right now."
After testifying, Tinlin told the News Service the state began inspecting the state's nearly 1,300 small bridges a couple of years ago. While those inspections are not complete, they convinced transportation officials that a new funding program is needed. He said he believed many bridges in western Massachusetts need attention.
Tinlin told lawmakers that an email from a Charlemont woman last August helped transportation officials to conclude the small bridge problem was "a much larger one."
The woman, Amy Coates, outlined for Tinlin the impacts of closing the West Oxbow Bridge on her family, friends and neighbors, and concerns about the safety and inconvenience of a planned alternative route from the local oil company, the postal service and the school district.
Tinlin urged lawmakers to strike a Transportation Committee proposal to ban more than 20 percent of funds from being awarded in any one highway district. The limit, he said, could lead to projects being funded because of where they are located rather than whether they are worthy. A MassDOT map shows small bridges evenly spread among highway districts, with the exception of Boston-based District 6, which has 36 small bridges that account for 3 percent of all small bridges.
Under the program proposed in H 4057, the maximum reimbursement would be $500,000 per year, per municipality and eligible bridges must have an average daily traffic count of not more than 5,000 vehicles.
Tinlin said a small bridge can be fully replaced for less than $150,000 and preservation work can be accomplished for less than that.
Design and construction of bridge projects would be handled locally, Tinlin said, and municipal projects would be evaluated and prioritized based on several factors.
Tinlin said that while the state inspects small municipal bridges, decisions about closing bridges or restricting vehicle traffic and weights are made by local officials.
While dropped from the road funding bill that's on the move in the Legislature, there's "great interest" in the small bridge funding proposal among legislators, according to House Transportation Committee Co-chairman Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett.
Straus called the bridge program a "positive proposal," and told state representatives during floor debate Wednesday, "That should be coming along later this session for your approval."
When small bridges are closed or in disrepair, it creates safety considerations and impedes economic development, Victoria Sclafani, legislative analyst at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told the committee on Thursday.
Testifying in support of the bill, Sclafani said that in addition to impacts on commuters, bridge closures can force fire trucks and ambulances, as well as school buses, to take longer routes.
"It's certainly a large problem for residents," she said.
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