Sick Bridges: An Eagle Eye Team Special Report

Hopes dim for national investments


With limited state money on tap for bridge repair, can D.C. help? 

For a time, many hoped President Donald Trump’s promised $1 trillion investment in infrastructure would ride to the rescue. 

But that hope is dimming — and lawmakers are raising doubts that the president’s plan, which depends in large part on private-sector partnerships involving tolls, would ever reach Western Massachusetts. 

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told The Eagle that continued bridge problems in Berkshire County are a symptom of federal “under-investment.”

Federal infrastructure spending fell significantly between 1980 and 2014, according to a Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center analysis.

“Congress must stop its patchwork approach, and make substantial long-term investments that repair our existing infrastructure and invest in new projects with lasting economic benefits,” Warren said.

The problem is clear. 

Across the country, owners of decaying roads and bridges are desperate for a share of the $1 trillion in improvements Trump says his infrastructure plan will produce.

Trump has proposed using $200 billion in taxpayer money over 10 years to leverage $1 trillion in improvements. 

Even if that $1 trillion in work eventually materializes, experts and lawmakers don’t think it’s enough. The American Society of Civil Engineers – which gave the U.S. a D + rating for infrastructure this year – says it should be more like $3.2 trillion. 

Bridge repairs aren’t all that’s needed, but they are stacking up. 

More than 65,000 bridges nationwide are structurally deficient, and more than 20,000 are rated fracture critical. 

Out of Massachusetts’ 5,171 bridges, 432 are structurally deficient, according to MassDOT. And state data say that more than 48 of those that are 20 feet or longer are in Berkshire County.

In 2015, the state calculated it would cost $14.4 billion to repair all bridges that need attention, even those not rated structurally deficient – and $3.3 billion to fix the deficient ones. 

The state does get federal aid every year, to the tune of about $600 million channeled by the Federal Highway Administration into its five-year capital Transportation Improvement Plan in recent years. For state bridges that qualify for federal repair help, 80 percent of project costs are paid for by Washington, 20 percent by the state. 

That money is distributed by the state to each region, using a formula crafted by regional planning associations based on road miles and population. 

The target amount for Berkshire County over the next five years is $38 million. Of all the regions in the state, only Franklin County, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would get less.

 Misfit as solution

One concern with Trump’s plan is that relying on private investments in transportation infrastructure – with private sector returns – might be fine in the big city, but not in places like the Berkshires.

“It may work well in high traffic, high demand areas, but it’s not one that rural areas would benefit from,” said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, says he is concerned about this, too. He said money from tolls under this plan “would go back to the investor or bondholder rather than [for] maintenance.”

This is what might happen if “you turn it over to private investors without guardrails,” he said. 

Neal recalled the Eisenhower era in the 1950s, a time when the federal government invested in the modern highway system on a “bipartisan basis.”

Now there’s much more infrastructure to pay for.

“The population is headed towards 330 million and that’s a lot more cars,” Neal said. “It’s a different time in America.”

But Neal also said a crumbling infrastructure might force political unification, at least to get this job done.

“Conservative organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Trucking Association have all been in favor of a massive transportation investment,” he said.

“We agree on it,” Neal said of the $1 trillion plan. “But we disagree on how to pay for it.”

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For now, the state isn’t banking on any new money.

“I haven’t heard anything with regard to bridges,” said Alexander Bardow, the state DOT’s bridge engineer. “We’re operating under the current funding program that exists.”

Holding out hope

If a federal infrastructure project takes shape, lawmakers say they’ll press for regional equity.

“This might be viewed as the best thing to come out of Washington in a long time,” said William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I’m glad the feds are talking about it. It could be very beneficial as long as [Massachusetts] gets our fair share.”

Pignatelli said if extra money comes, it will be in the nick of time for small towns in Berkshire County, where many bridges are old, and tight town budgets haven’t been able to keep up with maintenance or replacement. State funding, meantime, is pinched by healthcare and education costs.

“These bridges are all aging out at around the same time,” he said. “Bridges and culverts are the one issue that will potentially bankrupt small towns.”

Pignatelli said towns have painfully long waits for funding that “is never enough” through a state Transportation Improvement Program that distributes the money by region.

“A town could be on that list for 10 years, and sometimes small towns get squeezed out by the larger communities,” he said. “It’s a very unfair process, seriously flawed.”

“In the meantime, towns are on their own to figure it out,” he added. “But a bridge in New Marlborough is just as important as a bridge in Springfield.”

Neal, a former Springfield mayor, says he empathizes with the local struggle, one compounded by tough Northeast winters and a short construction season.

As a ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Neal said it’s important to remind taxpayers that using the public purse to improve outdated public works is critical.

He sees signs of bipartisanship when it comes to transportation funding. Even some mostly Republican states, he said, appear worried enough about transportation funding to have hiked the gas tax. 

But state government also needs to step up and be fair, Neal said, especially since federal transportation money flows through Gov. Charlie Baker’s office and the state Department of Transportation.

“I don’t want it to be Boston-centric,” Neal said. Berkshire and Franklin counties, he said, are “begging for a big [infrastructure] investment.”

“If [federal money] is filtered through the governor’s office and DOT,” he said, “I think there’s less opportunity for local officials to have input.”

Neal said Boston should kick a fair amount of any new federal money west. 

“The west helped finance the Big Dig,” he said of the multi-billion-dollar project in the 1990s. “And there ought to be regional equity.” 

Another signal from D.C. has some worried as well.

With so many bridges to fix, state and local officials are watching the big picture on federal transportation funding, not just the prospect of a sudden infusion. 

Policy analysts flag concerns about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $45 billion request in Trump’s 2018 budget. 

While Trump’s budget called for fully funding the federal Highway Trust Fund through 2021, without a new infusion it could take a $96 billion dive after that, according to the Budget Center.

Meantime, local officials are trying to find ways, here and there, to help small towns help themselves.

Pignatelli has pushed for a local option gas tax that would give towns a way to make money to spend on its roads and bridges. He sponsored a bill that went to the Revenue Committee for a hearing in May. That hearing, he said, “went very well.”

He said while the local gas tax won’t help towns that don’t have gas stations, there will be more money to go around to fix what he said is a “mess.”

“If the state can’t find the money to give to cities and towns then the state should not stand in the way of [their] generating their own money.”


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