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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Division Street Bridge reopening, while welcome, should also be a warning

Bridge shutdown, money woes yield lots of love for Great Barrington farm store (copy)

Great Barrington plans to install a modular temporary structure at the Division Street Bridge until the state can overhaul the existing bridge, shut in 2019 after an inspection revealed that it was too dangerous for traffic. The modular bridge will be substantially completed by the end of summer, officials say.

Nearly three years after its closure, the prospect of the Division Street Bridge reopening to motorists this summer is as welcome as it is overdue. While it will only be a one-lane temporary modular structure, that’s much better than the current status of a complete traffic impasse and a severed connection between state routes 183 and 41.

South County motorists have been going around this critical artery for years now, but there’s no getting around the fact that lengthy delays to key infrastructure upgrades result in a big hit to quality of life for surrounding residents and businesses. In the case of the Division Street Bridge, that has been painfully exemplified by nearby Taft Farm; its fields lie on one side of the Housatonic River, while its farm store is located on the other.

Bridges closed: Shutdowns take toll on commerce, fray nerves

The farm’s owner, Dan Tawczynski, described the effects on his livelihood from a single bridge’s drawn-out closure: “I can see my fields from the store. But again, you can’t get there from here. You have to drive 9 miles to get to a field that’s 500 yards away.” He relayed those frustrations to the Great Barrington Select Board — in October 2019. He added: “I think it’s more than most businesses can survive.”

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for Taft Farms, but it underscores the ways in which sustained infrastructure woes threaten much more than mere annoyance. This Great Barrington neighborhood is far from the only one in Berkshire County struggling with the sapped morale and kneecapped growth potential posed by prolonged road maintenance issues, particularly bridges. In fact, a state auditor’s office report from last year notes the extent of the problem across much of rural Western Massachusetts, with the insult of feeling overlooked by Beacon Hill added to the lingering injuries to our communities’ bones.

Still, the Division Street Bridge situation demonstrates a haphazard reaction to these real struggles. The decision by Great Barrington officials to pursue a temporary modular bridge is a wise move to get traffic flowing again while awaiting the completion of a longer, permanent project dependent on federal funds, but that stopgap measure should have come considerably sooner. While no one in 2019 could foresee the shake-ups and sclerosis posed by the pandemic, motorists and affected community stakeholders like Taft Farms have been cut off from a vital roadway for far too long. Now, years later, a modular bridge will relieve the choke point — paid for by $4 million that voters initially approved for reconstructing a permanent bridge.

We aren’t just beating up on Great Barrington. As we have stressed in this space, we need a top-down wake-up call on how we fund and maintain infrastructure in this country. The aforementioned state auditor’s report laid bare how Beacon Hill’s funding formulas and Eastern Mass.-skewed attention leave many rural and Western corners of the commonwealth to languish, from cracked roads and bridges to deteriorating municipal and public safety buildings. At the federal level, the real needs of our nation’s infrastructure have been willfully neglected for years — a massive structural failure in priorities. Hopefully the bipartisan infrastructure package passed earlier this year — poised to put $1.1 billion toward bridge repair in Massachusetts — lives up to its landmark pronouncements and begins to make that correction.

For now, however, the factors that contributed to the Division Street Bridge difficulties aren’t likely to radically change any time soon. While President Joe Biden’s gas tax holiday proposal is likely dead in the congressional waters, the White House’s pitch to slow a critical flow of infrastructure revenue indicates that economic factors and political headwinds are pushing the needle in the wrong direction. Municipalities must be clear-eyed in facing their respective challenges to critical maintenance. Yes, repairs and construction are expensive and disruptive, but putting them off will only result in far worse. If temporary measures like a modular bridge are the only way to provide some relief, better to be transparently realistic and implement those measures swiftly instead of putting that off as well.

With all that said, we’re looking forward the Division Street Bridge becoming accessible again this summer, if only one lane. It would be a travesty, however, if any relevant authorities cite the temporary modular installation to further delay the permanent bridge’s long-awaited finalization — which we hope comes sooner than later.

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