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Local News

“Poor” Condition Bridges Increase

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Bridge Inspection (ConnDOT Photo)

Bridge Inspection (ConnDOT Photo)

By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The number of bridges maintained by the Connecticut Department of Transportation that are rated in poor condition has grown over the past decade as they age.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that out of the nearly 4,000 road bridges, 190 were deemed in poor condition in 2000. That figure grew to 317 by 2010.

“We do in fact have a decreasing condition of bridges,” said Thomas Harley, the DOT’s chief engineer. Because the state has not dedicated the necessary cash needed to keep up with regular maintenance, Harley said the list of needed repairs has grown.

In November, Commissioner James Redeker appeared at Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s monthly commissioners meeting and said the bridges are the agency’s “biggest challenge,” pointing to how the number of outstanding problems to fix had grown from 531 just 11 years ago to about 2,000 today.

“It’s just the aging infrastructure, particularly in New England. It’s a major challenge and we’re addressing it,” he said.

“But the problem continues. So, this is going to be a major focus of how we work and we invest our resources, because we can’t wait.”

An overall rating is given to each bridge maintained by the state. If that rating is 4 or less, it is called poor, which does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe. That overall rating is based on engineering judgment after considering the condition of the surface, the steel or concrete supports, and the substructure _ typically a large concrete structure at the ends of the bridge.

Malloy, who is approaching his first year in office, blames the growth in the number of poor bridges and the maintenance needs on past administrations he believes scrimped.

“That’s quite clearly what happened,” he said. “Simply put, not enough money went into transportation, really for the last 15 years, and I hope to attack that issue very aggressively in the coming years.”

Malloy has focused more money– cash instead of borrowed funds –on small repairs and improved maintenance of the state’s bridges as part of the DOT’s preservation program, which focuses on both bridges and pavement repairs. Some of the work, such as bridge joint repairs and crack sealing, are anticipated to last only three to 10 years but are needed to make sure those roads and bridges last their full anticipated life spans, said Thomas Harley, the DOT’s chief engineer.

“It allows me to do more basic-level maintenance stuff,” said Harley, who likens the work to getting regular oil changes for a car, extending its life.

“It’s always better if we’ve been changing the oil all the way along,” Harley said.

The largest block of state-maintained bridges in Connecticut– 1,047– were built between 1960 and 1969. There are 657 bridges built 1950-59; 424 in 1930-39; 379 in 1980-1989; 332 in 1970-79; 315 in 1920-1929; 302 in 1990-99; 231 in 1940-49; 100 in 1910-1919; 77 before 1910; and 75 after 2000, according to the department.

The amount of cash dedicated to cover regular road and bridge maintenance has been nearly stagnant for the past decade. But records show the state spent $179.3 million on the so-called PAYGO cash account in fiscal year 1988, five years after a section of the Mianus River Bridge along I-95 in Greenwich suddenly collapsed, killing three people whose vehicles plunged 70 feet into the river.

That figure sharply declined as the state borrowed more money to cover transportation costs. By fiscal year 2001, the state almost routinely budgeted about $12 million to $12.5 million for the PAYGO account.

Malloy pushed to more than double that amount in his budget, from $12.4 million in fiscal year 2011 to $27.5 million in fiscal year 2012, the current fiscal year.

Harley said having twice the amount of cash will allow him to make a dent in the number of outstanding maintenance issues and the number of bridges designated as “poor.”

“I’m sure that we would see a turnaround in the trend in a couple years,” he said.

Former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Malloy’s predecessor, declined to comment. A message was left seeking comment with Rell’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland.

During Rell’s tenure, she worked with Democrats to create and fund the Fix-It-First program, a capital program that bonded a total of $135 million for larger bridge repairs in fiscal years 2008, 2009 and 2010; and a total of $90 million in roadway repairs over those same years. There was no funding in 2011. Fix-It-First cannot pay for the regular maintenance work that wouldn’t typically be expected to last 20 years, the life of a bond, Harley said.

Malloy has increased borrowing for that program, as well, dedicating $105 million this fiscal year and $121 million for the next fiscal year.

According to DOT, Rell did dedicate some federal stimulus money to cover some maintenance work, such as about $7.5 million to fix bridge joints, about $2 million for crack sealing, about $4 million for line markings and about $4 million for traffic signal upgrades.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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