Issue: Bridge Repairs


For motorists, the odds of crossing a bridge that needs repairs are greater than one in three in Onondaga County.

That’s a calculation from surveys done by the state and federal of the condition of local bridges. Nationally and locally, the maintenance of bridges is an ongoing issue of safety and cost. But at least locally, officials maintain that safety is not at risk on the county-owned ridges.

“I’m very fortunate in Onondaga County that there are ones that need work in our program, but there’s nothing out there we have a concern about leaving open,” said Brian Donnelly, the Onondaga County transportation commissioner. Donnelly oversees the 96 bridges owned by the county.

Nationally and locally, the overall chances a motorist will cross a bridge needing upkeep has gone down in the past five years, according to federal and state reports. But the number of aging bridges that will need repairs added to the backlog of existing repairs is will require more funds than in existing federal and local budgets.

Bridges in New York are owned by state, county and city governments. The New York State Department of Transportation evaluates all bridges longer than 20 feet in the state regardless of ownership, Donnelly said.

Those bridges most in need of repair are labeled “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” under different state and federal grading systems. Structurally deficient bridges need repair or maintenance, but are not unsafe. Functionally obsolete means some part of the bridge does not meet modern design standards.

Bridges that fall into these categories are inspected every year and often have reduced weight or speed limits. Repairing a bridge before it reaches this point is less likely. Federal funding is not available until a bridge is rated deficient.

Here’s a look at bridges with “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” ratings according to 2011 Federal Highway Administration ratings:

One in nine of the nation’s 600,000 highway bridges need repair or major improvements.

Nationally, 136,816 –or 23 per­cent– of 602,091 bridges are deficient.

Across New York, 6,405 –or 37 percent– of 17,405 bridges are deficient, which makes the state rank fourth-worst in the country.

In Onondaga County, 167 –or 35 percent– of 472 bridges need improvements.

Only 16 –or 17 percent– of the 96 county-owned bridges are rated as deficient and qualify for federal money to pay for repairs.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, the leading expert on U.S. infrastructure, estimates the United States needs to invest $17 billion annually to improve current bridge conditions. As of 2009, the country was spending $10.5 billion each year on bridges.

Some local examples of bridges needing repairs : The highest concentration of deficient bridge segments in Onondaga County are around Interstate 690, according to an analysis of state bridge data. On I-690’s underbelly, for example, columns and supports are missing chunks of concrete and rust gathers on exposed steel. On March 30, a piece of concrete fell from the I-690 overpass above Willow Street. That section was not rated deficient in the most recent reports. On April 13, a lane on I-690 was shut down for “emergency closure” to fix that same bridge deck, according to the State Department of Transportation.

State lawmakers recently stepped up spending on bridges in Central New York. In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to quickly begin repairs on bridges across the state. In Onondaga County, the program would put nearly $12.5 million into the accelerated repairs of 11 bridges. Five of the priority projects will replace segments of Interstates 81 and 690.

Nationally, a long-term transportation bill has been a political tug-of-war for years. The last long-term bill was passed in 2005 and expired in 2009. Since then, Congress has passed short-term extensions, often waiting until each extension was days away from expiration before passing the next. Members of GOP-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate are scheduled to meet May 8 to iron out differences in the Senate’s approved $109-billion transportation bill before a June 30 deadline.

Federal money available for bridge maintenance in Onondaga County varies from year to year. Most bridge construction is funded by federal and state dollars with a small percentage of local funds.

In 2011, Onondaga County’s bridge funds totaled $13 million. Of that, $9.3 million came from the federal government, $1.7 million from the state and $2 million from local government.

(M. T. Elliott is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)


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