The costly, steady ruin of bridges in Berkshire County

This bridge in Otis is 87 years old. Despite repairs in 1969, its components continue to fail, their demise charted by state inspectors. It is the most deficient bridge in the county, according to a state formula. The town’s highway chief says he’s seen floodwaters crest over the bridge deck several times. You might think help is on the way. Time will tell.

Tannery Road jogs east just north of Otis center, heading for ballfields and barbecue grills. Before picnickers pile out, they’ve got to cross the West Branch of the Farmington River. And that depends on Bridge No. 005007 — the structure deemed most in need of repair in Berkshire County.

Despite that status, the town can’t afford to fix it. 

“I can’t imagine anyone in Boston is losing sleep over that bridge,” said Christopher Morris, the Otis town administrator. “I wish they were. It’s challenging.”

Boston may yet ride to the rescue. Bridge No. 005007 is one of 17 spans that managed to make it onto a list for repairs. It is said to be a priority for replacement in 2022 at a cost of $821,280 — nearly five times the amount of road and bridge funding Otis receives from the state each year. 

But getting on the Transportation Improvement Plan list is no guarantee. In New Marlborough, a closed Hadsell Street bridge over the Umpachene River was supposed to be replaced last year. It’s still closed.

No. 005007 in Otis sits atop a growing list. Like dozens of sick bridges in the county, hundreds in the state and thousands across the nation, it is rotting from the inside out, failing faster than its owner — the town — can afford to repair or replace it.

Amid talk of $1 trillion in public and private infrastructure investments by the administration in Washington, D.C., bridges taken for granted by the public for decades are marching toward crisis. Evidence is easy to find on Berkshire roads: Posted weight limits, rusted railings, pockmarked decks and Jersey barriers placed to narrow lanes and reduce loads.

“As a state and nation, we are critically underfunding all of our infrastructure,” said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “And it is now approaching the end of its design life.”

For this special section, members of the Eagle Eye Team visited sick bridges around the county. This report lays bare the extent of the problem. Money could solve it. But the money isn’t there. 

“Having more money,” said Alexander K. Bardow, top bridge engineer with the state Department of Transportation, “would be very nice.”

Big bridges with big problems, like a section of the Mass Pike in West Stockbridge, get fixed. 

But less-important bridges, ones still important enough to have been constructed, can wait years for attention. Some just close, with little chance of ever being fixed.

With money limited, people make do. In Savoy, the state told the town to put cement barriers on a Center Road bridge near the firehouse to narrow it, easing the weight burden. That safeguarded travelers, but blocked drains and caused water to gather; blacktop came away due to freezing and thawing. “Basically, it’s about a one-lane road,” said Dan LaBonte, Savoy’s highway superintendent. “That’s our only access on the north side of town.”

LaBonte said he appreciates that the state launched a special repair program for bridges measuring 10 to 20 feet. But its reach is limited. “As usual, the state starts a funding program and it’s not really adequate,” LaBonte said.

In North Adams, the 84-foot Brown Street bridge over the Hoosic River remains in use, though problems with its superstructure — the beams and trusses that hold up a deck — earned it a place on the structurally deficient list. Interim repairs keep the bridge open and safe. “That one I don’t lose sleep over,” said Tim Lescarbeau, the city’s public services commissioner. 

In Otis, Derek Poirier, the highway chief, keeps his eye on Bridge 005007.

Supports for the bridge are at risk since water churns down this branch of the Farmington River, scouring its edges. Because the bridge is over 20 feet long, it doesn’t qualify for the new state program.

In Poirier’s 17 years with the highway department, he’s seen waters rise up and over the deck three or four times. “It’s been right up over the top of it,” he said. “We close the road off.”

And they wait.