Report: Bridges statewide need over $27B in repairs

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Nearly 13 percent of bridges throughout New York are considered structurally deficient, according to a new report by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Repairing all of these bridges would require $27.4 billion, and Mr. DiNapoli noted that it could become more difficult for local governments to acquire the necessary funding with potential changes to the federal government’s infrastructure aid programs.

“Many local governments understand the importance of long-term planning for their infrastructure needs but they will need help,” Mr. DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying the report. “While the state has taken steps to make funds for repairs available, the assistance of the federal government has also been critical. Difficult decisions lie ahead, but these infrastructure needs must be addressed.”

Mr. DiNapoli’s report classifies “structurally deficient” bridges as those that remain open and considered safe to drive on, but either have load-bearing elements in poor condition or are prone to repeated flooding.

In the north country, St. Lawrence County has one of the highest numbers of structurally deficient bridges at 35. Jefferson County has 23 while Lewis and Oswego counties both have 28.

Proportionally, about 16 percent of St. Lawrence County bridges are deficient. Jefferson County isn’t too far behind at 15 percent. About 22 percent of Oswego County bridges are considered deficient, along with approximately 23 percent of those in Lewis County.

The total percentage of county- and town-owned deficient bridges statewide has dropped, however, from 16.7 percent to 12.8 percent from 2002 to 2016.

But, as the report highlights, each region will need millions of dollars to make necessary bridge repairs. North country counties need a combined $482.4 million in funding for repairs, and north country towns will need a combined $23.7 million.

To cover these costs, local governments can leverage grant funding through the state’s Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program. That program has been funded at $438 million per year by the state. There’s also Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY BRIDGE program, which awards funding to bridge and culvert projects throughout the state on a competitive basis. Launched last year, the program has awarded about $200 million to local governments as of January 2017, according to DiNapoli’s report.

Federal assistance is available as well but, as Mr. DiNapoli pointed out, could put state aid programs in limbo if the federal government decides to revamp the way it distributes highway and infrastructure funding to states.

St. Lawrence County Highway Director Donald R. Chambers said that between CHIPS funding and federal aid, the county has been able to take on about five bridge restoration projects per year for the last few years.

But with the fiscal stress of many north country counties, including St. Lawrence, Mr. Chambers said it can be difficult to shorten the backlog of bridge projects.

“We do have a backlog of structures that do need attention,” he said. “We do need to make additional investments in our infrastructure.”

This is a point highlighted in Mr. DiNapoli’s report. In a survey of local government officials throughout the state, 86 percent said that fiscal stress affects infrastructure repairs, and 80 percent said that infrastructure disrepair contributes to economic decline.

James L. Lawrence Jr., Jefferson County Highway Department supervisor, noted that the report does not take culverts into account, which can add millions of dollars more in repair costs to local counties.

He said that there are roughly 125 culverts in Jefferson County that are in “desperate need of repair.”

With a mix of adequate state and federal assistance, Mr. Lawrence said the county can take on up to 10 bridge and culvert rehabilitation projects per year.

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