More money for bridge repairs — but not much

Thirty years after the deadly Mianus River Bridge collapse, hundreds of bridges on Connecticut’s local roads are deemed to be in “poor” condition by the state — and many have not been inspected in more than two decades.

Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal Wednesday to borrow $15 million for bridge repair and maintenance this year will be a big help to cash-strapped towns. But he acknowledged the problem is much bigger than that.

“It’s not exactly Santa Claus, but it’s a start,” he told town leaders in Cromwell of the cash infusion. The Department of Transportation has been pushing for it for the past several years.

More than 250 local bridges are eligible for rehab or replacement under the state’s Local Bridge Program. It was started shortly after the Mianus bridge collapse killed three people and injured three more in 1983. But the program is almost completely out of cash.

“All of the funds have been committed,” said Stan Juber, the program’s administrator — meaning the money is already being spent on current projects.

In 1985, Gov. William O’Neill’s administration planned to put $185 million into the program over a 10-year-period, to be matched by $159 million in local funds. In reality, the government paid into the program a total of just $54.2 million through 1989.

Redeker, James

Transportation Commissioner James Redeker: ‘We will do a bridge in a weekend rather than months… What I’ve heard is that projects take too long… Frankly, it’s a disaster.

“They apparently planned to make annual contributions over a period of 10 years, and it kind of petered out after five,” Juber said.

Since then, the program has lived off the principal amount in the fund, plus interest payments. These were quite high in the 1990s, when the stock market was roaring. But in 2009, as concerns mounted over Connecticut’s deficit, the legislature took $28 million — almost all of what was left in the program’s funding — and used it to pay the state’s bills. The number of new projects initiated that year dropped substantially, to just seven, down from 21 in 2008.

Eventually, the Department of Transportation was able to fight to get it back through a bond authorization. But no more money has been put into the program, until Malloy announced $15 million in bonding today.

According to data from late 2012, nearly 400 local bridges are labeled “structurally deficient,” a federal definition that roughly corresponds with the state term of “poor.” Neither of these terms mean “unsafe,” officials point out, but it is a way of indicating the structure is in need of attention soon.

Not all of these 400 bridges would be eligible for funding through the local bridge program, since some can receive federal money depending on the circumstances. But about 145 of those have not been inspected since 1991. Most of those that haven’t been inspected are too small to fit the federal definition of a bridge, which is why the state does not regularly inspect them, but several of those were built in the 1930s, and get thousands of cars a day in daily traffic according to state estimates. Those estimates were also completed more than 20 years ago — so average daily traffic is likely higher today.

The numbers are not unlike those discovered by a report from O’Neill’s administration in 1985, prompted by the Mianus Bridge collapse. That report found that on the local road system, 258 bridges with a span of over 20 feet were in “poor” condition. (The state also has hundreds of local bridges with spans under 20 feet, which were not inspected until the late ’80s).

And these numbers only count locally-owned bridges — not the numerous other bridges on state and federal highway roads, a high percentage of which are also considered structurally deficient. Still more are classified as “functionally obsolete,” meaning they no longer conform to today’s infrastructure standards. All of those must be repaired with different pots of money that are also quickly depleting.

“You’ll find that the investment that the state made after the Mianus River Bridge had a dramatic improvement,” said Tom Maziarz, director of the agency’s Bureau of Policy and Planning.  “The number of bridges in poor condition dropped dramatically…what we’re starting to see some evidence of now, is that we’re seeing some very small creep back towards that direction.”

“I don’t want to suggest it’s anywhere close to what it was in 1980s, but we’re not continuing to invest in quite the same level as we did previously.”

Malloy’s proposal also aims to speed up transportation projects. He is seeking changes to state law that would set up a state fund to give towns money for transportation projects and the Department of Transportation would seek federal reimbursements, and handle all the paperwork to get necessary environmental clearances and reimbursements.

“A lot of the money we send to you is federal money. And that means that its very complicated, and quite frankly very expensive, to spend, and there’s a reality that you don’t necesarily have the expertise of the volume of that work that we do,” Malloy told town leaders. “We’ll keep the federal money and we’ll send you state money.”

Transportation Commissioner James Redeker called these changes “rather dramatic.”

“We will do a bridge in a weekend rather than months,” he said. “What I’ve heard is that projects take too long… Frankly, it’s a disaster.”