Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

Monterey’s little bridge was big headache

But creative approach trimmed cost to a quarter of amount expected

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MONTEREY — A little bridge in this little town doesn’t lead many places. But when the state closed it, there was big trouble.

“Eighteen families and two farms were stranded,” said Select Board Chairman Kenneth Basler. 

When the 18-foot New Marlborough Road bridge over Rawson Brook closed in 2015, it forced a 30-minute detour on everyone.

In meetings with state officials, it became clear this town of 961 residents faced an $800,000 to $900,000 replacement. Because it is under 20 feet in length, the span didn’t qualify for federal aid.

“It’s the sort of thing that can kill a town,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

But Monterey sidestepped the usual MassDOT protocol and replaced the bridge for $157,000 by using a local engineering firm the state had not pre-qualified. 

That and other creative ideas saved the town a lot of money. What Monterey did won praise from regional officials and offers an example to cash-strapped towns across the region. 

The $181,000 included fees for a bridge the town rented to keep the road open for families and seniors, and for customers of Rawson Brook Farm, South County’s goat cheese mecca. 

The project took six months, far quicker than usual.

Alexander Bardow, the state’s bridge engineer, said he encourages the use of pre-engineered bridges and denies that the Department of Transportation opposes them. 

He said he’s been trying to set the record straight about this, adding that pre-engineered bridges are acceptable and helpful to towns for keeping costs down. 

Even so, Bardow said engineering companies not qualified by MassDOT don’t always have the experience to know what bridge design entails, and this can make more work for the agency, like “repeated reviews and assistance.”

Basler said this wasn’t the case for Monterey. For less time and money, Monterey got itself a safe, MassDOT approved bridge, vouched for by a local engineering firm.

Local officials said the way Monterey did it made them think. 

“It was cool that they were able to do that,” said Sean Van Deusen, director of Great Barrington’s Department of Public Works. He said for the three town-owned bridges that will soon need work, however, he won’t be able to sidestep the typical process since the bridges are larger, and declaring a state of emergency won’t be necessary.

Bridge work is slow. In a presentation to the Berkshire Transportation Advisory Committee, Bardow said the “initial investigation” can take six to nine months.

Designs can take one to three months, Bardow said. Add another one to six months, he said, for engineering sketches, geotechnical reports and soil testing.

From there tack on 12 to 24 months for final design and preparing construction documents. Getting these approved and a contract awarded can run another seven months. 

Bardow told The Eagle this process is meticulous for a reason. 

“I have not heard of any fatalities or injuries due to a structurally deficient bridge [in the state],” he said. “That’s one of the things we pride ourselves [on].”

Getting it done

First the town had to free up money. The only way to do this legally was to declare a state of emergency – to say the bridge was an “immediate threat” to safety of people and property.

It also allowed the town to take “any action necessary” to make it safe. This in turn helped the town sidestep MassDOT’s recommendation that communities hire an engineer pre-qualified by the agency. Instead it hired a local engineering firm for $11,000. 

And it was here the town really saved. The design cost estimate from the state-approved firm came in at $165,000 – slightly more than the entire cost of the eventual bridge replacement.

The town rented and installed its temporary bridge, since the state didn’t have one available, Basler said, then set about designing a concrete structure at U.S. Bridge, an Ohio manufacturer whose website says you can “start building your bridge today” with the “online design tool.”

“It went like a piece of cake,” Basler said. “Once the bridge came on a flatbed, it took three weeks [to install].”

From design to delivery, the bridge cost $56,000, less than the $72,000 it cost the town highway department to install it and pave the road. 

Basler, on a visit to the bridge, laughs and shakes his head as recounts the simple steps the town took. He said town highway workers take pride in what they created.

“The excitement and sense of accomplishment is a key piece to this,” he said. “I’ve actually caught them taking people down here to show them the bridge they built. That just goes so far for morale.”

Shawn Tryon, director of Monterey’s highway department, agreed. He said if a bridge isn’t too big, most towns can do what Monterey did “with some creativity and ingenuity.”

But the state, he said, has stepped in with plans for the replacement of another, larger bridge in town. And so far, it looks like a collaborative approach.

“We’re coming to common ground – we’re trying to do what [MassDOT] wants and they are realizing that we are capable of doing some of these things,” Tryon said. 

Special cases

Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said MassDOT is being logical by recommending use of pre-qualified engineers, but said smaller bridges with low traffic volume could be designed and built by local firms. 

“As long as [an engineering firm] is willing to put their stamp on it, it means they’re putting their professional license on the line,” he said.

In January, Karns wrote Gov. Charlie Baker about Berkshire County’s deteriorating small bridges, urging support of using pre-designed elements and local contractors. 

The Baker administration is aware of the backlog of bridge work that towns face. It’s one reason the state promised $50 million for the Small Bridge Program last August. Since these 10-foot to 20-foot spans don’t qualify for federal aid, the state’s 5-year program will reimburse a town up to $500,000 per year to fix or replace such bridges.

The program would have kicked in for Monterey, since it prioritizes bridges in “critical need,” but it came a year too late.

Bardow urges towns to make repairs that can extend a bridge’s life. But Bardow understands why towns often don’t keep up. “It’s money,” he said.

Future work

For $25,000, Monterey bought that temporary bridge it had rented for the New Marlborough Road bridge, and installed it as a permanent bridge on a 12-foot span on Wellman Road, which is open seasonally. 

But for the 40-foot Curtis Road bridge, things are looking dicey. The steel beams are corroding, Basler said, and its weight limit has been lowered, something that buys a bridge time.

“It’s the only way to get to Gould Farm,” he said of the 62-year-old bridge.

The Gould Farm is a 45-bed therapeutic institution that requires deliveries by loaded tractor-trailers, which now can’t cross the bridge. Neither can town fire or transfer station trucks, nor a loaded highway department truck.

“If you add 10 to 15 minutes to emergency vehicles that’s life threatening,” Basler added. 

Earlier this year, Basler said the estimate on repairs hit $1 million. 

“We’re looking at a three- to five-year wait,” he added, his voice rising. “It’s one of the most important roads in the town.”

The town has a design estimate of $147,000 from U.S. Bridge, and what at first looked like a $350,000 job. 

But now it appears the town may have to use a MassDOT-approved engineering firm.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “The smaller firms don’t do big enough jobs to get on the DOT list.”

Basler said he’s frustrated by the state’s bridge process, having seen what is possible.

“Every town in the Berkshires and the state is suffering. If we can’t [safely] do a bridge in Monterey for one-third the cost, there’s something wrong with that.”

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.



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