Our Opinion: 'Sick' Berkshire bridges aren't getting healthier

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It is has been about 1 1/2 years since The Eagle's Larry Parnass led an Eagle Eye team investigation into the "sick bridges" of Berkshire County. What has changed since then? For the most part, the bridges have grown worse following 1 1/2 years of traffic and neglect.

The situation in Great Barrington, which has problems of varying degrees with three bridges, personifies this persistent dilemma. Most notable is the 84-year-old Cottage Street bridge, a 134-foot town-owned span that connects the east side residential neighborhood with Main Street. (Eagle, April 5). A state inspection five years ago found the bridge to be structurally deficient but still safe for traffic. However, in December, the bridge was closed to traffic after a routine inspection found it be in significant need of reinforcement and repairs. Bridges decay over the years, largely because of deferred maintenance.

It was originally estimated that it would cost $100,000 to $200,000 to reinforce the superstructure of the bridge but those costs haven risen, as construction costs do, to between $350,000 and $450,000. A $5 million state grant to replace the bridge will be available in 2023, and the Select Board is expected to discuss soon whether or not the town should wait until then to act. It seems unlikely that east side residents will take kindly to a four-year wait before a bridge replacement project that is sure to be lengthy is even begun. In the interim, the costs of buttressing the bridge will undoubtedly rise.

When the Eagle series on sick bridges was written, 48 of Berkshire County's 364 municipal bridges like the Cottage Street bridge in Great Barrington were listed as structurally deficient. That number hasn't changed. Beacon Hill has increased funding for bridge repairs and replacements but the number of deficient bridges combined with the escalating cost of repairs or replacements has stalled the process. Seventeen of the 48 deficient bridges are on waiting lists that stretch several years into the future. The most recent addition to the list of sick bridges came only two weeks ago when a bridge on heavily traveled Holmes Road in Pittsfield was reduced to one lane for an indefinite period because of a problem with a support beam. The state DOT is weighing its options.

The federal government could and should step in to assist states and municipalities, but this nation's failure to address its transportation infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports and rail — has been a disgrace for many years, especially in contrast to the manner in which many Asian and Western European nations have invested in upgrades and new technology. President Trump's promised infrastructure program turned out to be heavily reliant on private industry, which has no incentive to invest in public projects without the delivery of considerable public financial aid. The president suggested last fall that he and House Democrats could work together on an infrastructure project but nothing has come of that. The president's only infrastructure proposal remains the construction of a a needless southern border wall that he would waste millions of taxpayers dollars on if Democrats were not standing in the way of this scheme.

So the bridges of Berkshire County, and their counterparts across the nation, continue to decay and be closed off before they cave in. A nation that once prided itself on its ability to build things and get things done should be embarrassed.

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