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MassDOT Seeks Federal Funds as State Bridges Fall into Disrepair

Wed November 25, 2020 - Northeast Edition
Lowell Sun

You don't have to drive underneath one of the thousands of decaying bridges in Massachusetts to know that the state's infrastructure is far from perfect, but a recent federal report indicates that things are only getting worse.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released data earlier this year about bridge infrastructure in the commonwealth, indicating that more and more bridges are falling into disrepair.

Specifically, of the 5,233 bridges in the state, 469 — or 9 percent — were classified as structurally deficient in 2019, meaning one of their key elements is in poor or worse condition, up from 450 in 2015.

"We've been well aware that the conditions of our bridges have been trending in the wrong direction over the last five years, and it's projected that we're still going to be trending in the wrong direction for the next five to 10 years," said John Pourbaix, executive director of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts.

According to Pourbaix, this growing infrastructure problem is not to be blamed on the state's Department of Transportation (MassDOT), but instead is primarily the result of a lack of necessary funding.

In 2008, the state Legislature created the Accelerated Bridge Program to reduce the backlog of structurally deficient bridges, and by the time the program ended in 2018 it completed nearly 200 bridge projects.

However, Pourbaix said that since the program ended, the amount of money being invested in repairing bridges dropped from around $600 million a year to $400 million, which has significantly hampered the response from MassDOT's Highway Division.

"I think the Highway Division does a very, very good job in inspecting the bridges and prioritizing them, especially with the resources that they're given," he explained. "The problem is that they don't have the necessary resources that they need to really address a growing problem. There's some money in a pending transportation bond bill that would ramp up spending, but it's really not quick enough and not sufficient."

The issue is particularly prevalent in Districts 3 and 6, which encompass large sections of Middlesex and Essex counties. There, the rates of structurally deficient bridges are 10.1 percent and 11.8 percent respectively, the highest in the state.

According to U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, who represent Districts 3 and 6 respectively, the real culprit behind this issue is the federal government, which Trahan said has wrongly been shifting these financial burdens onto state and local governments.

To fix the problem, Trahan said that the U.S. Senate needs to pass the Moving Forward Act, which in part would invest more than $1.5 trillion in rebuilding the country's infrastructure, including $300 billion in investments to improve structurally deficient bridges and roads.

The House passed its version of the bill in July, however, the Senate declined to bring it up for a vote.

"States can't go it alone," Trahan said. "We need a massive investment to catch up and make these repairs so that we don't have passengers driving over structurally deficient bridges."

While MassDOT Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver did not comment on the Moving Forward Act or on the actions of specific politicians, he agreed that the department needs more funding to be able to fix the growing issue.

"Certainly, there was a lot of hope in these last four or five years that there was going to be a big transportation spending plan to come out of Washington, D.C., and that never materialized," he said.

According to the FHWA report, Massachusetts has identified needed repairs on 4,798 bridges at an estimated cost of $13.1 billion.

Regardless, Gulliver stressed that while there is much work to do, drivers are not putting themselves at risk when driving over these bridges.

"One thing that I think needs to be clarified and made crystal clear is that we do not have any unsafe bridges in Massachusetts," Gulliver said. "When bridges become unsafe, we close them, so just because it's labeled structurally deficient does not mean unsafe. That's a very important distinction."

Rather, when a bridge is classified as structurally deficient, Gulliver said that MassDOT increases the number of times it is inspected — from once every three years to once a year — and does repairs when necessary.

However, Gulliver noted that if the number of structurally deficient bridges grows to 10 percent, the federal government will penalize the state and begin limiting what the department can spend federal money on.

And perhaps worst of all, Pourbaix said that worsening bridge conditions means Massachusetts drivers will see much more frequent temporary fixes to bridges which will, he said, "exacerbate traffic even more."

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