Reset our priorities to shore up a collapsing foundation

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Four billion vehicles cross bridges — over 600,000 of them — in the United States each day. Most of us give little thought to the bridges we cross. We assume they are safe.

Every once in a while, a catastrophic collapse makes us take notice. One such collapse was on Dec. 15, 1967. An eye bar fractured on the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River during rush hour. Thirty-one cars fell into the cold river waters, killing 46 people.

Federal legislation followed to set up a national bridge safety inspection program.

A tragedy closer to home occurred two decades later, on April 5, 1987, when two spans of a 30-year-old Thruway bridge over the Schoharie Creek collapsed, sending five vehicles into the flooded river, killing 10 people. An investigation attributed the collapse to scour — the removal of sand and rocks by the roiling waters.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in its 1988 report on the collapse that the key lesson to be learned was “for bridge owners to identity the critical features that can lead to the collapse of a bridge, and to ensure that these critical factors are inspected frequently and adequately.”

Another two decades later — on Aug. 2, 2007 — another collapse, this time of a bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., left five people dead. This led the chairman of Congress’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Jim Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota, to call for an increase in gasoline taxes to provide greater investment in transportation and infrastructure around the country.

Over 70,000 bridges in the United States are “structurally deficient,” according to the federal Department of Transportation. Oberstar cited a backlog of $32.1 billion in bridge repair on national highways.

How focused will Americans’ attention remain?

We need to realize that infrastructure is important to our wellbeing. The dramatic collapse of a bridge and the tragic deaths that follow may rivet attention, and rightfully so, but people live with everyday concerns as well.

Last week, we listed the 26 bridges in our coverage area — in Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns — with state ratings below 5, meaning the bridges are “deficient.” Four of them are deemed “structurally deficient” by federal standards.

We highlighted the dilemma of the Berne residents who live on the far side of the Fox Creek. Their only access to the rest of the world is over the Kaehler Lane Bridge. Built in 1978 to carry 40 tons, it is owned by the town of Berne and is deemed “structurally deficient” by the federal government.

After the bridge was posted at just 3 tons last month, Leo and Annie Vane came to our news office with their concerns.

“I no longer have fire service or ambulance service,” said Leo Vane. “I can’t get an oil truck up there to fill my oil tank, or a propane truck to fill my propane tank.”

He and his neighbors worried they would lose their mortgages if they didn’t have fire protection. Vane farms his 200 acres and said he could no longer get his hay over the bridge. He also said he needs to log his woodlot, but cannot truck the wood out.

His neighbor, Brian Schneible, expressed his concerns vividly to the Berne Town Board: “I have a wife and a four-month-old child across that bridge,” he said. “If there’s a fire, what do we do?”

The problem, of course, is money. Congressman Paul Tonko’s federal transportation bill includes a $234,000 earmark for replacement of the Kaehler Lane Bridge, and Berne’s 2010 budget shows a $216,000 increase in highway department revenues in anticipation of that grant money.

But it hasn’t yet come through. In the meantime, the town last week braced the bridge so it now has a 15-ton limit. Now, at least oil trucks and lightweight fire trucks can cross.

The solution, though, is only a temporary one. The bridge was put on the state’s critical bridge list, meaning that it has needed repair if not replacement, in 1998 and has been deficient all these 11 years since then.

The oldest bridge on the “deficient condition” list in our coverage area is the bridge on Onesquethaw Creek Road in New Scotland that crosses the creek of the same name; it was built in 1839.  A half-dozen were built in the 1930s, and eight more were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Salt takes its toll on bridges,” Thomas Hoffman, with the DOT, told our reporter, Zach Simeone. “All the steel components — like a car, they rust out. It costs a lot to paint them, and there are environmental considerations. So, repair is very expensive, as, obviously, is replacement.”

A small town like Berne, with a total annual budget of $2.3 million, has a hard time coming up with money to replace a bridge. Deterioration of infrastructure is a problem nationwide, but particularly in the Northeast. Water and sewer systems, as well as transportation systems, were built here over a century ago. They are, quite simply, wearing out.

Earlier generations paid for most pipes as population and the economy boomed — in the 1890s, during World War I, in the 1920s, and after World War II. The oldest cast-iron pipes, installed in the late 19th Century, have a useful life of about 120 years; pipes installed after World War II have an average life of 75 years. Their time is up. The clock is ticking. And there is no economic boom.

House and Senate committees in recent Congresses have acted on legislation to reauthorize and modify infrastructure financing programs in the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, but no bills were enacted.

The nation’s drinking water and wastewater treatment systems are as essential to Americans’ health and safety as its transportation system. The first comprehensive statement of federal interest in clean water programs was the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948.  That’s when federal aid to municipalities began. Federal assistance to municipal treatment agencies grew in the 1950s and 1960s.

The focus on federal deficit reduction in recent years, though, has kept the government from making major new investments in infrastructure. Spending priorities recently have been skewed towards defense and homeland security.

“Whether water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years are $200 billion or $1 trillion, they are potentially very large, and the federal government is unlikely to provide 100 percent of the amount,” according to a 2008 Congressional Research Report for Congress.

Similarly, a report, “Rural Roads and Bridges: A Comprehensive Analysis,” published by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1977 states that expensive, long-term rural road and bridge repair and replacement is being overlooked and postponed, and emphasizes the need to restructure revenue sources. “It is very likely that State governments will follow the Federal lead in sending programs back to local governments using the rationale that they can be more efficient and creative about finding remedies for these issues,” says the report.

This is precisely what is happening. As the economy sputters, state and federal grants are drying up. Unemployment is decreasing tax revenues while further burdening the system, and decreasing property values are cutting into government coffers.

Locally, in Albany County, towns and villages have relied on sales tax to balance their budgets; those funds, too, are decreasing.

We support regionalization and consolidation where it is practical to save funds and still work efficiently. We also support efficient use of water to save funds. But that is not enough. Infrastructure repairs and replacement are too much for local government to bear alone.

We need to prioritize domestic spending so that health and safety needs — for clean water, strong bridges, and smooth roads — are met. Period. Without a doubt.

One small example found in our pages this week is in the mayor of Altamont’s State of the Village column. Tiny Altamont is facing over $3 million in long-range costs to repair its sewer plant and will need outside government funds to do it. At the same time, the village has received grant money for its police department’s bullet-proof vests. While we can’t fault the department for taking advantage of available funds, we can point out the inconsistency of need. How often are village police fired at?

A much larger example can be found in the local application of federal stimulus funds. The three school districts we cover — like those across the state – last year faced the prospect of large cuts in state aid. School districts then made plans to cut spending. This was painful and involved cutting jobs and programs. Then, federal stimulus money came through and most all of the proposed cuts were restored. There were no wage freezes. We envision a similar scenario for this year.

Again, as with the Altamont Police, we certainly don’t fault the schools for spending the money offered to them. But we believe the federal government has the wrong priorities. As we’ve written here before, it is a sound idea to put people to work on needed projects in the midst of a faltering economy.

But needed infrastructure improvements should be the priority. Many of the government-funded projects from the Great Depression — ranging from the essential like the Tennessee Valley Authority that brought electricity to the rural Appalachians to the recreational like the Civilian Conservation Corps that built park structures still proudly serving today — not only put people to work but raised the quality of life for Americans.

Many of the workers were paid modest salaries, but their work was grand, and endures to this day.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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