Our Opinion: The decaying bridges of Berkshire County

When Berkshire County residents think about bridges it is usually when they confront one in their travels that has been partially closed or in a state of disrepair for what seems like — and probably is — many years. We drive away, only to ask days, weeks or months later — why is this taking so long to fix? Or alternatively, is it even being fixed?

The sorry state of Berkshire bridges was chronicled in alarming detail through articles, charts, graphs and photos in The Eagle's two-part special section last Sunday, November 5, titled "Sick Bridges: The costly, steady ruin of bridges in Berkshire County." Of the 364 municipal bridges in the Berkshires, 48 of them are classified as structurally deficient. Those numbers don't tell the entire story as they don't include the problematic bridges that don't as yet meet the structurally deficient category and they don't include state bridges.

The sick bridges pose inconveniences both large and small, and can be dangerous. Bridges are costly to repair — the average cost of a rehabilitation or replacement is $1.5 million according to Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission — but not repairing them only increases the cost when they are in such terrible shape they must be fixed or replaced.

Financing aside, the process of getting a bridge repaired, from an initial investigation through detailed studies to the awarding of a contract, can take between two and three years. The state argues, and not without reason, that the repaired bridges must be safe and points out that there have been no fatalities or injuries attributed to structurally deficient bridges in the state. Still, the lengthy process adds to the frustration of communities that have difficult funding such projects in the first place.

Sometimes Berkshire ingenuity comes to the rescue, as in Monterey, where the Select Board sidestepped Mass DOT regulations on hiring an engineering firm and essentially designed and built its own bridge over Rawson Brook two years ago for a fraction of the cost estimated by state officials. This is a tiny bridge, however, and most communities won't be able to adopt the do-it-yourself approach.

The state is certainly cognizant of the funding issue, and the Mass DOT's Accelerated Bridge Program and this year's Municipal Small Bridge Program are designed to address it. However, many bridges are either too long or too short to qualify for funding under these programs, and Berkshire communities are competing with counterparts around the state for limited funding. The state generated an extra $100 million in revenue designated for infrastructure by raising the gas tax to $24 cents per gallon in 2013, but unfortunately voters overturned via a shortsighted 2014 referendum question a provision passed by legislators to tie the gas tax to inflation. This shut off an option to generate more needed road and bridge revenue over the years.

Meanwhile in Washington, which has not raised an outdated federal gas tax of 18 cents since it was instituted in 1993, transportation infrastructure continues to be grievously underfunded. The U.S. used to build highways, airports and train tracks, but a penny wise-pound foolish attitude has stalled that while Asia and Europe picked up where the U.S. left off decades ago. President Trump's proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan is sitting on a back burner, and if it is based on private investment, as he suggests, those investors will surely go where the big money is, which is high-traffic urban areas. No one should risk getting stuck on a Berkshire bridge waiting for a federal rescue.

The state and federal governments must invest in a bridge repair effort that also includes funding for the kind of maintenance programs that, in their absence, have contributed to the decline of Berkshire and Massachusetts bridges. That ultimately means that taxpayers must fund these efforts. Contrary to the president's assertions, Americans have a far lower tax burden than those in most First World nations, and Massachusetts, the former Taxachusetts, is in the middle of the pack when it comes to tax burdens by state.

If you want sound infrastructure it comes with a price. And bridging the current funding gap means spending on bridges before, not after, they threaten to fall into the roads and rivers they were built to cross.


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