Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

New state fund throws lifeline to towns

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Berkshire County leaders are welcoming new state aid to fix deteriorating small bridges ineligible for federal funding. But the money won’t solve the problem.

The county has 109 small bridges that aren’t eligible for federal funding. 

“I think that [the program] could be a tremendous help. I wish the state would put a lot more money into it,” said David Turocy, commissioner of public services for the city of Pittsfield.

Small bridges are the responsibility of the towns, which don’t have the funding to pay for needed repairs and replacement.

“[Small bridges] are on the town’s dime, and they don’t have the dime to do it,” said Clete Kus, transportation program manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Enter the Municipal Small Bridge Program, a five-year, $50 million life raft signed into law last year. After a Charlemont woman contacted the office, the state Department of Transportation became aware of a lack of state funding for municipally owned small bridges that led to delayed repairs and maintenance.

“One of the things that we found is that cities and towns [that] maybe don’t have a lot of money ... were deferring a lot of maintenance on these small bridges,” said Thomas Tinlin, highway administrator for MassDOT. “The implications to closing these bridges is huge. There was no help available.” 

The small bridge program plans to help towns handle an issue that has traditionally fallen squarely on towns’ shoulders: fixing, repairing and maintaining municipally-owned small bridges that don’t qualify for federal funding. The federal definition of a bridge requires a span of greater than 20 feet, while Massachusetts recognizes bridges with spans greater than 10 feet.

Approximately 1,300 municipally owned bridges in Massachusetts are between 10 and 20 feet in length. Since they don’t meet the federal definition of a bridge, towns can’t get federal aid for them.

And many towns don’t have the funds to make necessary — and costly — repairs on their own.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which lobbies for the interests of cities and towns, enthusiastically supported the small bridge program, said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the association.

The program provides up to $500,000 per year per municipality in reimbursement to fix, replace or preserve municipally owned bridges.

After years of saving Chapter 90 aid funding — or simply being unable to fix their deteriorating small bridges — highway officials in Berkshire County towns anticipate progress. But others have bypassed applying for funding, knowing their sick bridges need more help than the program allots.

Four towns in Berkshire County received awards in the first round of funding, announced in late March: Sheffield, Stockbridge, Washington and Windsor. 

The city of Pittsfield applied to the program for a bridge on Hancock Road, but Turocy received notification in February that the application wasn’t selected.

Knowing the severity of some bridge issues in the county, Turocy is not optimistic that Pittsfield will be selected for the program anytime soon.

“The city knows there’s needs, but there’s only so much money to go around,” he said. “We’re not at the point where there’s catastrophic damage.”

The small bridge program is a good starting point — funding for roads and bridges has been stagnant for 20 years, he said. 

Some towns in Berkshire County with deteriorating bridges haven’t even applied for the program, knowing it doesn’t fit their needs.

The short bridge span requirements of the program aren’t a match for Lee — the town’s bridges are larger than the span encompassed by the program, said Chris Pompi, superintendent of the the Lee Department of Public Works.

The only obstacle to fixing the bridges?

Just money, he said. 

“Mainly, the bridges are reaching the end of their useful life,” he said. “Work needs to happen on them. If you don’t start it now, it will become a crisis in five years.”

Great Barrington doesn’t have much use for the small bridge program, either.

Bridges in Great Barrington that would qualify for the program are actually in good shape, said Sean VanDeusen, public works superintendent.

But for at least a few towns in Berkshire County, the small bridge program stands to make a dent in their bridge needs.

Washington was awarded $250,000 to replace a bridge on Middlefield Road over Coles Brook through the small bridge program. Stockbridge and Windsor were each awarded the maximum amount — $500,000. Sheffield was awarded $420,000 to rehabilitate a bridge on County Road over Ironwork Brook.

“This is really the only funding source that these towns have,” said Kus of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Very few towns choose to authorize borrowing for bridge work, he said.

The program’s requirements could be improved, Kus said.

“MassDOT typically has, I’ll say, a very high design standard, and that results in a higher project cost,” he said. “It’s kind of like the difference between a Cadillac and a Chevy. They both do the same thing, but one is at half the price.”

The small bridge program requires municipalities to choose from engineering consultants and construction contractors who have been pre-qualified by MassDOT. 

This requirement drives high design costs, Kus said.

MassDOT requires municipalities to use pre-qualified consultants and contractors for the dual purposes of efficiency and assurance that towns will be able to work with someone qualified, said Alexander Bardow, state bridge engineer for MassDOT. This way, towns have reliable people who can give them good advice and assistance during the construction process, he said. 

‘If you want somebody designing a bridge, you want somebody who’s knowledgeable in bridge design,” he said.

Kus said he understands the purpose behind the pre-qualification requirement.

“I fully understand the concept behind it, but I don’t believe in [it],” he said. “I think it just leads to higher costs and, in some instances, excludes local contractors from receiving the work.”

In Berkshire County, some of the towns that got help expect the money will cover replacement or repair costs.

That’s true for Washington — but the town’s problems don’t stop with the bridge on Middlefield Road over Coles Brook.

The town recently had to close two small bridges on Lower Valley Road.

“I’d love to fix them,” said James Huebner of the Washington Select Board. “But these things get horribly expensive.”

Although it’s not enough to cover the whole project, Stockbridge’s award of $500,000 will move the town forward towards replacement of the Larrywaug Bridge, said Leonard Tisdale, highway superintendent. 

Estimates put the bridge replacement costs at $3.5 million, he said. 

“Half a million is quite a bit of money,” he said. “It definitely helps. It’ll get some engineering done on the bridge. It’s moving us forward.”

Windsor was awarded $500,000 to rehabilitate a bridge on Flintstone Road over Tyler Brook. 

“It’s a real tricky bridge,” said David Laviolette, Windsor’s highway superintendent. “It’s going to require a lot of design work.”

“I have to say this is the worst bridge [in town],” he said. Deteriorating beams and deck contribute to the bridge’s poor condition.

“It’s kind of one of those things — the more you look, the more you find [wrong],” he said. 

Without a program like this, the town would likely have had to take out a loan for the project, he said.

“This, for the town of Windsor, is huge,” he said. “I’m satisfied with what we’ve got right now.”


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