Franklin County bridges need work

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Mike Johnson of Greenfield walks the pedestrian walk way down the center of the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge on Thursday

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Mike Johnson of Greenfield walks the pedestrian walk way down the center of the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge on Thursday

  • Recorder/Paul Fran<br/>TurnersFalls-Gill Bridge

    Recorder/Paul Fran
    TurnersFalls-Gill Bridge

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Mike Johnson of Greenfield walks the pedestrian walk way down the center of the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge on Thursday
  • Recorder/Paul Fran<br/>TurnersFalls-Gill Bridge

Franklin County has what’s essentially the highest proportion of structurally deficient bridges in the state, according to a national study released recently by a national transportation advocacy organization.

The Transportation for America report, “The Fix We’re In: The State of Our Bridges 2013,” credits Massachusetts for improving its standing since a similar 2011 study. It’s now ranked 28th of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, with 495 of its bridges labeled “structurally deficient.” That’s an indication that 70 bridges have been repaired.

But although Massachusetts’ ranking is better than most states, and ahead of any other New England state, 48 of those bridges designated “structurally deficient” are in Franklin County. They account for 16.3 percent of the bridges in the county. Only Nantucket, with just one of its two bridges listed, is in worse shape.

The Franklin County bridges listed include several under repair: the Turners Falls-Gill bridge, the Factory Hollow bridges and those that carry Interstate 91 over the Deerfield River. So is the Eunice Williams Covered Bridge, which has been closed since damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. Many of the bridges are relatively small spans that allow local roads to pass over streams and small rivers.

But just because a bridge is deemed “structurally deficient” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unsafe, said Frank DePaola, highway division administrator of the state Department of Transportation, who called the designation “like a yellow caution” signal.

“If a bridge was unsafe, we’d call it closed,” he said.

The label represents low scoring on at least one of three bridge components: the deck surface, the iron or steel superstructure that supports it and the substructure, which uses the ground to support it. Each is given a rating between 0 and 9 when inspected, and federal guidelines classify bridges “structurally deficient” if one of the three components is rated at 4 or less, meaning that engineers have identified a major defect, according to Transportation for America, an advocacy group whose supporters include organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Public Health Association and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

One result of the “structurally deficient” label is to step up the state’s bridge inspection timetable from every two years to annually, said Franklin Regional Council of Governments planner Maureen Mullaney. A slightly different state rating of the bridges shows 44 of the county’s 295 bridges structurally deficient.

Some of the bridges on the “structurally deficient list,” like the Farley Road bridge in Erving, were built as far back as the 1880s; a few, like the Interstate 91 bridges over the Deerfield River that are now being repaired, were built as recently as the 1960s.

You have bridges that were built 100, or 50 years ago, Mullaney said. “Time and wear take their toll. The need for repair exceeds revenues, so we fall into a situation where bridges have to be back-listed. It does mean there’s some wear to its structure, but it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, and people shouldn’t be alarmed. The problem is,” she added, comparing the report to a car mechanic’s routine maintenance list for your car, “if you don’t have the revenue to start chipping away at repairing those now, when your brakes are 80 percent gone, you are moving toward a place where you may have to close bridges, and you may reach a point where the traveling public shouldn’t be using them.”

She called the status “a very good indicator of where limited revenue should be focused.”

The state is now in the fifth year of an eight-year, $3 billion “accelerated bridge program” that targeted 202 of its 565 structurally deficient bridges statewide, but state transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes said, “Even with $3 billion, it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Still, as of April, the state has replaced or reconstructed 126 of its 202 targeted bridges, with 47 — like the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge — under construction and the rest “in design or procurement.”

“We’re confident that we’re going to be able to finish all of those in the eight-year window,” said DePaolo, even though the list includes five “mega-projects” in Worcester, and four eastern Massachusetts locations totaling more than $1 billion.

A map of the Accelerated Bridge Program shows that none of the 202 bridges are in Franklin County.

The state is spending about $1 billion on bridge repair and reconstruction overall this year, according to Verseckes, and the push for construction money is also a big part of Gov. Deval Patrick’s push for a $13.7 billion transportation bond over 10 years, including a revenue package that’s been rejected by the Legislature.

“The list isn’t shrinking as fast as we’d like, said Mullaney, adding that the General Pierce Bridge between Montague City and Greenfield — though listed as structurally deficient has apparently been pushed back to a seven-year time frame, after originally having been envisioned for work to begin when repairs to the Turners Falls-Gill Bridge winds down next year.

With roughly $44 million in repairs, the Turners Falls project is scheduled to open to two-way traffic in November, but the roughly $20 million Montague City project isn’t scheduled to be advertised for bids for about six years. The state has spent about $1 million to keep it open.

Bridge projects projected for construction in coming years, according to the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan, include repairs to the Depot Street bridge between Rowe and Monroe, replacement of the Sadoga Road bridge in Heath, a Route 112 bridge in the center of Colrain, the Savoy Road bridge over the Chickley River in Hawley, the McClellan Road Bridge over Boston & Maine tracks in Deerfield, a Bardwells Ferry Road bridge over Dragon Brook in Shelburne and a Holtshire Road span over the Millers River in Orange.

You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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