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Crumbling NY Roads, Bridges Cry for Help

Wed May 10, 2000 - Northeast Edition
Mary Gelling Merritt


New York State’s roads are in rough shape and its bridges are falling down — that’s the conclusion of a $50,000 study by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The research, paid for by an Albany-area construction trade association called the Communicate Roadway Improvement Situation in the State [CRISIS], found more than 9 percent of New York’s state-owned roads and 35 percent of state-owned bridges are in poor condition. Thirty-four percent of state-owned roads were found to have excessively narrow lane widths and 30 percent had excessively narrow shoulder widths. The worst state-owned roads are in St. Lawrence and New York counties. The worst state-owned bridges are in Brooklyn where almost three out of every four spans have bad decks.

The study, based on data collected from 1996 to 1998, also found almost 12 percent of locally owned roads are in bad shape.

The construction industry-backed CRISIS Program reportedly commissioned the study of New York’s infrastructure after the State Department of Transportation repeatedly denied the group access to a recent state highway “needs” report. A Freedom of Information request filed by the CRISIS Program was also rejected as well as subsequent appeals.

“The public has a right to know the condition of the highway system it uses,” said A.J. Castelbuono, the CRISIS Program director and president of the New York Associated General Contractors.

To fix the problems, the study’s authors, University of North Carolina at Charlotte professors David T. Hartgen and Alfred A. Stuart, estimate New York State would have to spend more than $26 billion. Published reports indicate New York State plans to spend $8.75 billion on road repairs and maintenance in the next five years. Hartgen worked with the New York State Department of Transportation for 22 years as head of the department’s Planning Research Unit and director of Transportation Statistics and Analysis. He also served as the special assistant to the director of Planning for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, D.C. from 1984 to 1985.

The spokesperson for New York State’s Department of Transportation, Michael Fleischer, defended the state’s infrastructure. He said New York’s roads and bridges are in the best shape they have been in ten years.

“Any suggestion that our roads and bridges are unsafe is completely untrue,” Fleischer said.

The study lists the most expensive projects in need of immediate attention including: a $22.5-million bridge rehabilitation project on Route 7 in Colonie near Albany; a $25.2-million reconstruction project of the Utica-Rome Expressway; a $40.2-million reconstruction and widening project of Interstate 390 in Monroe County; and a $258-million reconstruction of lanes and bridges project along Interstates 287 and 87 in Westchester County.

“These alarming statistics come at a time when the state has no vision and no adequate plan to prevent the continued deterioration of the one asset which made it the Empire State — its roads and bridges,” Castelbuono said. “It comes at a time when federal highway money is not being leveraged properly, when we can boast of having some of the worst bridges in the nation and when the Department of Transportation refuses to release its own secret needs-analysis, afraid to panic the public.

“We call on the Governor and Legislature to take another look at developing a future plan for funding its deteriorating infrastructure so when kids are ready for the roads — the roads are ready for the kids,” Castelbuono added.

Castelbuono said he believes that if the state took measures to widen lanes and shoulders by just a foot, accident fatalities could be reduced by nearly 20 percent throughout New York. He also said a poor highway system has a negative impact on the flow of commerce and stymies economic growth, adding that if the state continues to delay, improvements will cost more because of inflation.

What do the people of New York State think? According to a poll conducted by Zogby International, out of 704 likely voters surveyed, 65 percent rated roads negatively, and 57 percent gave bridges an unfavorable rating. Fifty-nine percent of those asked supported more spending for road and bridge improvements. Support for more spending shot up to 83 percent after respondents were fed pieces of information such as the federal government’s view that New York’s bridges are the worst in the nation and that poor roads cost the economy, as well as motorists billions of dollars in wasted fuel and vehicle wear.

When asked if the state should borrow the money to fix the roads and bridges, 63 percent of the respondents said they would be more likely to support borrowing money for improvements if they resulted in job creation and contributed to the state’s economy. Fifty-nine percent would approve borrowing money if they knew it would be dedicated to improving the state’s transportation system, while 53 percent would approve if the money would keep the cost of commuting lower. Fifty-two percent said they support borrowing money if it would substantially reduce the number of deficient and unsafe bridges.

Founded in 1988, the CRISIS Program is a coalition of statewide businesses and organizations whose mission is to serve as a central voice of the business community who work to create public awareness of New York State’s transportation systems. Their goal is to ensure there is adequate funding for highway and bridge repair programs in New York State.

As for charges that Castelbuono’s group is acting in its own interest he said, “No one in our organization is denying who we are. Yes, we do try to make a profit out of the roads we build. Yes, we do try to make a living in this industry. But that has nothing to do with the accuracy of the numbers we’re reporting.”

The Center for Interdisciplinary Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte conducts comparative studies of highway and transit performance. Many of its studies have garnered national attention.

The center’s top 10 rated highway systems for 1997, the latest year available, were led by North Dakota, Wyoming, South Carolina, Montana, Idaho, Kentucky, Texas, Oregon, Georgia, and Alabama. The states at the bottom of their list were Colorado, New York, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Jersey.




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