Bridges closed: Shutdowns take toll on commerce, fray nerves

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Dan Tawczynski says his farm and grocery store business is suffering — during prime pumpkin season — and he knows why: The bridge is out.

"Houston? We have a problem," Tawczynski told the Select Board on Monday, noting that sales at his Taft Farms at Division Street and Route 183 are down 38 percent during the pumpkin-selling, cider doughnut-buying flurry leading up to Halloween. "That's a lot. I think it's more than most businesses can survive."

His worry doesn't end there.

Taft's busy season continues into Thanksgiving with turkey sales, and straight into Christmas, with tree sales and a wreath-making operation.

But the pumpkin situation is the worst for a company that has to harvest 30 acres of fields, 10 of which are on the other side of the bridge.

"I can see my fields from the store," he added. "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."

The Division Street bridge was shut down abruptly for safety reasons last month, blocking a major artery and complicating life for residents and truck drivers across several communities. The 142-foot span over the Housatonic River has the lowest rating possible on the state's deficiency scale, and a state Department of Transportation inspection last summer sealed its fate.

Town officials had already known that decades of deferred maintenance and heavy truck loads on the 70-year-old bridge had to be reversed. So, they had already begun an engineering investigation, and secured $4 million from voters last May for a repair or replacement.

But the state inspector got to the bridge first. Now, Town Hall is scrambling.

Because it could take up to three to four years to replace or fix the bridge, Tawczynski is suggesting the town install a temporary bridge, and he offered his land to help make this happen.

A temporary bridge would still require the same environmental and analysis for permitting — and that could take more than a year.

"We have to prove that the temporary bridge can hold," said Department of Public Works Director Sean VanDeusen.

And a one-lane solution is out, he added.

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"The very first thing we tried to do is to one-lane it," he said, but the state said no. "We're going as fast as we can. Because it's a bridge, they want to make sure its done right. And it's a long span."

Residents say the multiple recent failures of town- and state-owned bridges represents a larger problem; a state bureaucracy that is disconnected from the lives of residents.

"I think its really scandalous that we have two bridges [out] in the this town," said Klas Bergman, a Division Street resident. "This needs to be looked at in an emergency way."

Bergman was referring to the town-owned Cottage Street bridge downtown, which was shut down last year for similar reasons, though a $5 million state grant had already been secured to fix it.

The big infrastructure picture

Both Tawczynski and resident Jeff House pointed to next summer's repair and painting of the Brown Bridge at the entrance to town, and said a chronic gridlock problem from there up into Stockbridge Road will only get worse when repairs reduce that bridge to one lane. And extra traffic diverted to Route 7 from the Division Street closure won't help.

DOT spokeswoman Judith Riley said in an email Tuesday that this $1.6 million project will typically feature two, 12-foot travel lanes with concrete barriers during construction, with "times during the setup and takedown of the barriers ... when traffic will be restricted to a single alternating lane."

House said that while the town's bridge dysfunction continues, the state is planning to spend millions and begin construction on a rotary at an intersection south of downtown — one that a number of residents oppose because they believe it is unnecessary.

The state plans to begin that $2.2 million project in late 2020, according to Riley.

For his part, VanDeusen is doing what he can on the town side. He aims to make sure the same thing doesn't happen with the Brookside bridge south of downtown. He said he'll be asking voters for design and engineering money at annual town meeting in May.

He is philosophical about the possibility of a future with tax hikes, as towns might not be able to wait for state grants to make repairs to such critical infrastructure.

"This is what it costs to run civilization," he said. "It's not cheap."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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