LOWVILLE — Four town and five county bridges in Lewis County are in various phases of the multi-year repair or replacement process — from design and construction funding to moving toward shovels in the ground.
While 2021 was a quiet construction year for bridges, it was a year dedicated to design work on the three projects that will be funded for summer construction this year: West Road over Whetstone Creek in the town of Martinsburg, East Road over Moose Creek in the town of Leyden and County Route 21 over Gulf Stream in the town of Pinckney.
Bridges on Woodbattle Road over Cobb River in the town of Denmark and Marshey Road over the Independence River in the town of Diana have been approved for federal funding to go into the design phase.
County Highway Superintendent Tim Hunt and his team are constantly monitoring and prioritizing which of the bridges on county roads are next up for repair in a never-ending cycle.
“In Lewis County we have 89 bridges and the average design life of a bridge is 75 years,” Mr. Hunt said. “So it doesn’t take much math to know we have to do one bridge a year, if not two, or we’re going to fall behind.”
More important than the age of the structure is a bridge’s daily traffic; the condition rating given to each structure during state inspections every two year; and the “local bridge priority index,” a state rating calculated using a number of metrics that can include the traffic volume and detour possibilities during construction. Other metrics include how far a detour would take traffic away from the direct route or whether the bridge work or detour impacts a major industry.
Strictly by condition, the worst bridge in the county is on Bryant Road over Fish Creek, but it is “literally a bridge to nowhere” leading to the forest with only one farmer occasionally using it,” Mr. Hunt said.
Constant monitoring and a constant repair or replace cycle prevents an unnecessary buildup of projects.
“We can focus on getting one or two projects and we don’t have 10 of them come up all at once,” Mr. Hunt said.
Every highway superintendent gives an annual “state of the bridges” presentation to the regional representative of the state Department of Transportation, usually in November, outlining priorities and the status of pending projects.
Bridges over 25 feet long not on state roads are the responsibility of counties, while any bridge shorter than that is under town jurisdiction for maintenance, repair and replacement when necessary.
“The towns are not really equipped to get the funding or (go through) the process of how to replace one of these (bridges). These are very expensive, a million dollars to do one of these bridges, on average. How is a town with a fund balance of half a million dollars ever going to pull this off?” he said.
To help alleviate the problem, Mr. Hunt offered to cosponsor any bridge projects towns wanted to submit this year to the state’s Bridge NY funding program which had a good response from municipalities.
Four of the bridge requests by towns that responded to the offer were successful in getting funds from the state for the design phase: $952,000 for Gardner Road over the tributary to Deer River in the town of Lowville; $783,000 for O’Brien Road over Mill Creek in the town of Lowville; $1 million for Crofoot Hill Road over the tributary to Sugar Creek in West Turin; and $642,000 for Bailey Road over the Independence River in Watson.
“It’s the best, I think, Lewis County has ever done (in getting town projects funded). Getting four town projects is huge,” Mr. Hunt said.
In general, bridges have two funding stream options.
Through the federal process, federal money usually covers 80% of the cost while the state Municipal Streets and Highway, or Marchiselli program fund pays 15%. The county picks up the final 5% of the tab.
The Bridge NY program also uses Marchiselli fund resources, but covers 95% of bridges and 100% of structures under 20 feet wide, all of which are considered culverts. The Bridge NY program also has “a few less restrictions” than the federal program, making it the better fit for most bridge projects on town roads.
Most projects in the county are designed under the federal aid process, but town bridges are usually funded through the Bridge NY program although there are exceptions.
Some of the more elaborate studies that are standard requirements with federal funding can also “be more than the cost of the bridge,” which for a more simple structure like a box culvert or replacing “like for like” in a project, the extra cost is not necessary or prudent.
State funding, however, has challenges that have caused Mr. Hunt and his team to plan bridge projects and secure funding in two separate stages: design and construction.
“We’re planning bridges out multiple years from now and funding streams go from fiscal years around the calendar in Albany, so we can’t really design a bridge and say it’s funded four years from now when we don’t know what New York state’s budget is going to be in four years,” he said.
Mr. Hunt said he is hopeful the new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will take off some of the pressure.
“That will be a four-year program, so that helps us do a lot more of this planning so that we know if we put a bridge (funding application) in right now it’s going to be funded for construction,” he said. “We’re anticipating to see a pretty good bump from that infrastructure investment money so there will be more bridges that will be able to be taken care of.”
To prolong the life of county bridges, Mr. Hunt said a three-person maintenance team washes the bridges every spring to remove as much salt and sand as possible. The team follows an inspection list looking for standing water on the bridge surface, the condition of guard rails and encroaching brush among other issues that could cause faster deterioration.
Some bridges that have a foundation design that is susceptible to flood damage are also inspected after storms when water subsides to ensure no “scouring” — erosion of the dirt around the bridge’s footings or piers — that could compromise the stability of the bridge.
“These bridges are a huge asset that belong to the tax payers of Lewis County and if that bridge life can be extended by five or six years, that’s a huge amount of savings.” Mr. Hunt said. “We know we can do certain things ... that will help to do that. It’s our job to protect those assets for the taxpayers.”
Two state DOT projects in the northern part of the county — one on Route 26 over the Deer River in Denmark and one in the town of Croghan on Route 126 over Swiss Creek — were completed this year.