Bay State bridge repair is underfunded
The deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis has brought a sharper focus on bridge conditions elsewhere in the country, including the Bay State.
“This should be a wake-up call to all the states to be more vigilant,” said commuter Ann Oates, 55, of Randolph. “Bridges are old - the maintenance needs to be more vigilant.”
Braintree resident Harry Shallman, 57, is originally from Minnesota and has been over the bridge that collapsed Wednesday many times. “With some of the bridges I’ve seen I'm surprised they haven’t (collapsed) yet,” he said. “The infrastructure is getting older with each passing moment.”
Massachusetts has 27 steel truss deck bridges - the same kind as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis - including one in Wareham on Paper Mill Road over the Weweantic River.
Thomas Broderick, director of highway safety for MassHighway, said the agency won’t know how similar those bridges are to the I-35W bridge until more information is available about the deadly collapse that sent dozens of vehicles into the river, killed at least four people and injured nearly 80 others.
That Massachusetts’ highways, roads, railways and bridges are aging and suffering from neglect is no secret. A report released in March from the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission said maintaining the state’s transportation system over the next 20 years will cost $15 billion to $19 billion more than what will be available under current financing plans. Those projections don’t include new projects.
The report estimated that only $6.2 billion will be available for bridge maintenance over the next 20 years, falling short of a need for $8.6 billion in replacement and maintenance.
One of the largest projects on the list is the $150 million replacement of the Fore River bridge in Quincy. A temporary bridge was opened in 2003 to replace the previous span that stood for 67 years.
“There definitely has been a historic underinvestment in the state’s infrastructure,” said John Lamontagne, a spokesman for Mass Highway.
According to Mass Highway, 506 of the state’s 5,550 bridges, or 9 percent, are structurally deficient. The national average is 13 percent of bridges considered deficient. That classification, which applied to the I-35W bridge, doesn’t necessarily mean a bridge is in imminent danger of collapse, but it means that at best the bridge is nearing the end of its useful life.
Mass Highway is responsible for inspecting bridges in the state, and officials there said the state’s inspection program is more robust than what is required by federal authorities.
Still, criticism and worry has been growing over the lack of investment in the state’s aging roads and bridges - due in part to the vast amounts of money funneled into the Big Dig.
The March report from the transportation finance commission also highlighted the precarious nature of financing at the state’s transportation agencies.
“The facts are on the table, but people have been in denial or ignoring it,” said State Sen. Robert L. Hedlund, R-Weymouth, a member of the legislature’s transportation committee. “In my opinion, our failure to maintain our infrastructure is going to be the biggest issue facing Massachusetts over the next 20 years, not just from a safety standpoint, but from a financial standpoint..”
The report found that all the state’s transportation agencies - Mass Highway, the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority - have major problems in how their financing is structured.
At Mass Highway, for example, only 18 percent of employees’ salaries were paid for out of the department’s operating budget in 2006, compared to 85 percent in 1990. That means 82 percent of Mass Highway workers are paid with borrowed money.
The agency’s staff has also fallen dramatically, to 1,760 employees in 2006 from 3,000 workers in 1990. The finance commission said a workforce that size isn’t enough to oversee and maintain the state’s highway system.
The commission is expected to release another report around Labor Day that will provide its recommendations for bridging the shortfalls in transportation needs and spending.
Stephen Silveira, chairman of the commission, said it is critical for the state to start catching up.
“To the extent you don’t pay for it today, it’s not as if those costs go away. Not only do they not go away, but they only get worse.”
Julie Jette of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.