Westport bridge serves as a symbol for crumbling infrastructure
Published 4:20 pm, Saturday, August 27, 2016
WESTPORT — The Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook, recently deemed deficient by the state Department of Transportation, has been closed indefinitely to vehicles over four tons. Those vehicles over the weight limit will be inconvenienced and have to find alternate routes between Canal Road and
But the threat from crumbling infrastructure reaches far beyond Westport. The bridge is just one symptom of a larger problem of deteriorating roads, bridges and rail lines that pervades every state in the nation and will cost billions of dollars and decades to fix.
“Connecticut has some of the worst traffic and the oldest infrastructure in the nation,” Senator Chris Murphy said. “Bridges like the Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook and the bridge over the Saugatuck River are old and structurally deficient. We need to upgrade them to make sure they are safe.”
The bad news on the Kings Highway North Bridge was delivered on Friday when the Connecticut Department of Transportation declared that it was “deficient” and in need of “immediate action to ensure public safety.” Before the deficient bridge was restricted to vehicles under four tons, there was no weight restriction—meaining it was considered suitable for all legal weight loads. The maximum legal vehicle weight, according to ConnDOT Spokesman Kevin Nursick, is 80,000 pounds or 40 tons, ten times the amount currently permitted to cross the bridge. Currently, there is nobody monitoring what vehicles are allowed to cross the bridge.
“If you start talking larger pickup trucks with a dump body and add three tons of stone in the back, you’re already over the limit,” Nursick said.
Connecticut is cracking, according to FHWA’s 2015 National Bridge Inventory data and ARTBA report
As reported in the Connecticut Mirror and according to National Bridge Inventory data from 2015, almost half of the 30 Westport bridges, 43.33 percent, are considered functionally obsolete. Structurally deficient bridges make up 13.33 percent of the town’s bridges and 43.33 are not considered deficient.
The statement from the First Selectman’s Office notes that the 18-foot bridge had not been inspected by the state DOT in 24 years—since 1992. The Connecticut DOT regularly inspects municipal bridges over 20 feet. ConnDOT Spokesman Judd Everhart said bridges that fall under 20 feet long are “inspected and maintained by the town.”
The Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook is a town owned bridge on a town owned road, according to Nursick.
“There are town owned bridges and state owned bridges. DOT is not responsible for town owned bridges,” Kevin Nursick said. “The DOT is not responsible for inspecting structures under 20 feet long on town roads. We inspect structures over 20 feet long on town owned roads. We inspect them and that’s all our responsibility is and the towns do whatever they want to do with that information. That’s their business, they own it.”
Although the state DOT is not responsible for the town owned structures under 20 feet long, they are in the process of identifying all such bridges in order to keep track of them and to notify the towns of potential or existing deficiencies.
“In order to help the towns, we are taking inventory to catalogue all of these miniscule bridges or bridge like structures (under 20-foot bridges) that are owned and located on town roads. The DOT is doing this as a courtesy to the towns because of the DOT’s general concerns that these towns are either not on top of the conditions of the structures that they are responsible for or not aware of the conditions of the structures that they are responsible for,” Nursick said.
“We did this back in the 90’s under the auspices of ‘Who is looking after these?’ We have a general concern about safety so back in the 90’s we started a review, here we are 20 plus years later we are doing the same thing again because we still have the same concerns,” Nursick said. “We think there are 2,200 bridges or bridge like structures, under 20 feet, that are locally owned, town owned and town responsibility that we want to get a grasp of their condition to encourage them (the towns) to engage their maintenance duties.”
Public Works Director Steve Edwards said his department does not complete inspections regularly and does not know the last time they checked the bridge. “We check them typically after a major storm event, but it’s not on regular basis. I don’t know, I don’t have a record,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he believes there will be a “minimal” impact on traffic and said, “We’re going to expedite the replacement of that culvert.”
First Selectman Jim Marpe said that he plans on implementing a more regular schedule of inspections for the sub 20 foot bridges.
“In talking with Steve I think we have a good understanding of the small bridges in town where there may be problems where we may want to take remedial action. By bringing the Kings Highway North Bridge to our attention, that’s caused the First Selectman’s Office and the Department of Public Works to rethink our approach to inspecting our smaller local bridges. I’ll work with the director of public works to make sure we are inspecting those smaller bridges on a regular schedule in order to ensure that we have confidence in the quality and condition of those bridges,” Marpe said.
Town Engineer Peter Ratkiewich said there are five bridges over 20 feet long in town that are on the list to be looked at and repaired for deficiencies: where Greens Farms Road crosses over Sasco Creek, where Old Road crosses over Sasco Creek, Hulls Farm Road over Sasco Creek, Bayberry Lane over the Aspetuck River and a site jointly owned by Weston and Westport—Cavalry Road over the West Branch of the Aspetuck River. The two structures under 20 feet include a brief repair on High Point Road along with the aforementioned Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook.
In a 2015 report compiled by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), citing the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s 2015 National Bridge Inventory Data, 357 of the 4,225 bridges in Connecticut, or 8 percent are labeled as “structurally deficient,” meaning one or more key bridge elements is considered to be in “poor” or worse condition. Twenty six percent of bridges in the state, 1,087, are “functionally obsolete” which means the bridge doesn’t meet current practice design standards in terms of overall geometry, shoulder width and lane width. The state is ranked 26th based on the percentage of structurally deficient bridges.
The fourth most traveled structurally deficient bridge in the state lies at the entrance to Westport: Interstate-95 over Route 33 at Exit 17. Over 130,000 vehicles cross the 59-year-old span each day, according to the ARTBA report.
Despite the vast amount of fragmenting infrastructure engulfing the state, measures are being taken to help the tired and clogged arteries of travel. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed in December of 2015 by President Barack Obama, authorizes $305 billion through 2020 for improvements to highways, railroads and public tranportation initiatives. Through the bill and towards that end, Connecticut recieves $3.5 billion over that five-year stretch. Gov. Dannel Malloy, through his Let’s GO CT plan, allocates $2.8 billion over the five-year plan in addition to the $3.8 billion baseline plan for the ConnDOT.
Many commuters who travel to work via the often delayed Metro North trains or drive on the constantly congested Interstate 95 continue to be frustrated by the stagnant circumstances.
“It (transportation and infrasturcture) is always at the top of my list in terms of specific concerns in my district. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t push on that issue,” said Rep. Jim Himes (CT-04). “Ask anyone who lives in my district what it’s like to be on the roads at rush hour.”
Himes has long been advocating for improvements to infrastructure. He was the original co-sponsor of The National Infrastructure Development Bank Act of 2011 which provides for a way to fund crucial infrastructure projects while cultivating private investments and private sector partnerships. On the forefront of Himes’ goals going forward are the objectives that ConnDOT has high on their list, including Stamford Atlantic along with exit and entrance improvements along the Merritt Parkway and I-95.
Sen. Chris Murphy has focused on improving transportation in the state like helping to secure $191 million in federal funds toward the New Haven-Springfield commuter rail line.
“I’ve worked hard in Congress to secure predictable federal transportation infrastructure funding for Connecticut, which we achieved in part with the FAST Act, but there’s so much more we need to do. We need a long-term vision for a transportation system that ensure commuters can safely get to their jobs and make it home in time for dinner with their family,” said Murphy.
Murphy also launched an endeavor called “Fed Up” which seeks input from commuters about how to make it more manageable.
“Every day, thousands of commuters find themselves stuck in traffic or stalled on the train. But traffic, congestion, and delays are more than abstract concepts. Traffic means stress. Congestion means being late for work. Delays mean missing dinner with your kids,” Murphy said.
As a result of federal investments in the state, Connecticut has been able to use $2.1 billion for capital improvements on 541 bridge projects from 2005 through 2014. In the last 12 years 157 new bridges have been built in the state with 123 undergoing major reconstruction, the ARTBA report states.
Over 204 million vehicles cross 58,495 structurally deficient bridges daily in the United States, according to ARTBA. The issue is listed on the websites of both nominees for the Presidency of the United States.
A piece of Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure platform calls for a five-year $275 billion dollar infrastructure plan where business tax reform would pay for such an investment. $250 billion would be directly invested in the public while the remaining $25 billion would be used towards a national infrastructure bank. The bank would leverage $25 billion to support another $225 billion in loan guarantees, direct loans and other methods of enhancing credit.
Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s website says that 28 percent of roads are in substandard condition and 24 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or worse. It goes on to say that “Trump’s plan will provide the growth to boost our infrastructure,” but it fails to explain how he seeks to accomplish such a goal.
Whether or not the candidates will make any headway in office is a more complicated matter, according to Himes.
“Well the issue is not Clinton or Trump, but the issue is the U.S. Congress. What we need to do is address the financing. You can do that through the gas tax or through more innovative ways like the national infrastructure bank,” Himes said.