Tonawanda News — The collapse of a bridge in Washington state last month prompted questions about the integrity of the United States’ aging transportation infrastructure.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, about 11 percent of 600,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient, including the 58-year-old Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River near Seattle. While bridges are aging at a rapid clip — the average age of deficient bridges across the country is 65 years old — dedicated federal funding for bridge rehabilitation was eliminated by Congress last year.
In New York state, all bridges are subject to every-other-year inspection by the state Department of Transportation. The agency claims that its bridge rating standards are among the most rigorous in the nation, well exceeding federal minimum standards.
The D.O.T.’s most recent ratings report on 270 bridges in Niagara County, published in April, lists 19 bridges as structurally deficient, meaning one or more of their load-carrying elements is damaged, the bridges have inadequate load capacity or repeated flooding causes traffic delays.
Structurally deficient bridges are not necessarily “unsafe,” according to D.O.T., but they do need repairs or rehabilitation to return them to best shape. D.O.T. rates bridges on a scale of 1 to 7 and considers spans with a rating of 5 or more to be in good condition, and less than 5 to be deficient.
The average age of structurally deficient bridges in Niagara County is 64 years.
The oldest one, the state-owned Wruck Road bridge over the Erie Canal in Royalton, was built in 1910 — and was closed to traffic in 2007, on a finding that it’s unsafe for travel. Its condition rating as of last autumn was 3.39.
The youngest structurally deficient bridge is the Johnson Creek Road span over Mud Creek, constructed in 1983, in Hartland. While that town-owned bridge gets labeled “S.D.” by the state, it also received a condition rating of 5.19.
Countywide, another 50 bridges are labeled “functionally obsolete” because their design does not meet current standards for managing traffic volume. Lanes are narrow, shoulders are narrow or non-existent, clearances are low and the like. The F.O. label does not reflect structural integrity, D.O.T. said.
A couple of examples: While “obsolete,” the century-old Canal Road, Lockport, and Slayton Settlement Road, Gasport, bridges over the Erie Canal are rated 5.89 and 5.45 respectively.
In eastern Niagara County, six of 10 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges are owned by the county. Plans are in the works to repair most of them within five to 10 years, as federal transportation aid is secured, according to Michael F. Tracy, deputy commissioner of public works.
The Wilson-Burt Road bridge over Eighteenmile Creek in Newfane requires a $4.2 million project, involving repair of all piers and abutments, recycling of steel and replacement of decking and sidewalks, is being design-engineered now and bid solicitation for the various parts of the job should get under way in December, according to Tracy. Eighty percent of the tab is being reimbursed by the federal government.
The county already invested $400,000 in the Wilson-Burt Road bridge, in 2008-09, to have one weakened pier shored up. D.O.T. had “red-flagged” the bridge, indicating it wasn’t safe for crossing, so it was closed until the pier was fixed. At 350 feet across and about 40 feet above the creek, the Wilson-Burt bridge is “one of the most significant bridges in the county,” Tracy said.