The New York State Department of Transportation has called it “the bridge wave” — and it’s already cresting in Queens and beyond. Over the next decade, more bridges than ever before will surpass their 50-year life expectancy with many needing repair or replacement.
Despite improved bridge conditions and investment, scores of spans in Queens and citywide remain deficient. Experts worry state and federal budget cuts to transportation will impact the city’s ability to invest in sustained, long-term projects to reverse the trend towards deterioration.
“If we took a snapshot today, the bridges are in decent shape,” former city DOT Chief Engineer Sam Schwartz said.
When he served in the 1980s, over 70 bridges were in “poor” condition by city standards. Now only four, including the Brooklyn Bridge, hold that distinction. In the past four years, the city DOT surpassed $4.3 billion in capital investments on projects to bring its roads and bridges into a state of good repair.
But by state and federal standards, prognosis doesn’t look as good. One hundred sixty bridges in the five boroughs were deficient upon last inspection, according to “The Fix We’re In For: The State of Our Nation’s Bridges,” a March 2011 report by DC-based reform coalition Transportation for America. It used Federal Highway Administration 2010 National Bridge Inventory data to highlight deficient bridges nationwide.
The FHWA requires states to inspect bridges every two years. Inspectors grade each on a scale from 0 to 9 in three key components: superstructure, substructure and deck. If a bridge scores 4 or lower in any category, it means engineers discovered a major defect in its support structure or deck. The bridge is deemed “structurally deficient.”
The state DOT says this rating does not imply that a span is unsafe or likely to collapse, but deficient bridges do need “significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement” T4America states.
New York State has over 17,000 state and local highway crossings. On average 46 years old, most were designed to last only half a century. A predicted 12,000 will be over 50 by 2030.
The DOT expects a wave of nearly 3,000 bridges to reach structural deficiency this decade. More than 2,000, or 12 percent, are deficient already, and another 25 percent are functionally obsolete, meaning their design does not meet current standards for handling their traffic volume.
Queens has 36 deficient bridges, “The Fix We’re in For” states, among them the MTA-owned Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges. That’s 7.4 percent of its 484 bridges. Nearly 1.4 million vehicles cross over these 36 spans every day.
The worst rated bridge in Queens — the Borden Avenue Bridge — was deficient in all three categories upon last inspection, with its lowest rating a two in substructure. The city-owned retractile bridge, built in 1908, spans the Dutch Kills beside a strip club in a heavily industrial area of Sunnyside. Roughly 4,000 vehicles travel over it each day.
In 2009, the span was closed after inspectors noticed that a shift in the western abutment was undermining the bridge’s stability. Emergency repairs cost $45 million.
The city DOT has appropriated $40 million in capital investments to replace the existing steel bridge in 2017, one of more than 20 Queens spans under design by the city for projects slated from next year to 2020, including deck replacement for the Roosevelt Avenue bridge over the Flushing River and Van Wyck Expressway, Queensboro Bridge ramps, and the Rikers Island Bridge.
Schwartz, who has lauded the city DOT’s bridge record under the Bloomberg administration, worries more about the future of city crossings owned by the state DOT, an agency he says is beset with “long and drawn out processes” for managing its bridges that are inefficient compared to the city’s preventive maintenance system.
In Queens, the state owns 246 highway bridges, according to 2011 NYS highway bridge data and 16, or 6.5 percent, of those are deficient, a percentage in fact less than the bridges under city jurisdiction. But nearly 120 of the roughly 140 spans turning 50 years old in Queens over the next decade are state-owned, and many will become deficient.
Schwartz points to “the biggest link” between Brooklyn and Queens: the ramshackle Kosciuszko Bridge, which sees 140,000 vehicles per day.
The deficient span over Newtown Creek was one of 49 deck truss bridges statewide inspected by a task force in 2007 after the I-35W bridge in Minnesota collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The disaster prompted the FHWA to urge states to check similarly designed bridges with “fracture critical members” — those components of a crossing that lack built-in redundancies to prevent failure.
“If one piece breaks, any one piece, like a house of cards, the whole thing goes straight down,” explained Barry LePatner, author of the book, “Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward.”
“We have still a number of those in New York City and more than a hundred of those structurally deficient and fracked critical bridges in the state,” LePatner said.
In that inspection, the Kosciuszko Bridge received more yellow and safety flags than any other span in the state. A November 2007 NYS Bridge Task Force report cited “section loss, corrosion cracks and cracked welds.” Its overall state DOT condition rating was even lower after inspection two years later.
The bridge is scheduled for replacement in fall 2014, with a price tag as high as $1.7 billion, according to the New York Daily News. The DOT says reconstruction is necessary because of traffic congestion and structural conditions that continue to deteriorate despite “aggressive maintenance efforts by the NYSDOT.”
Although the new bridge will receive state funding, money for other bridges remains uncertain due to budget cuts.
Another priority project, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, is being pushed by the governor's office, said Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Whitestone), who called the fracture critical span over the Hudson River “dangerous” and “in desperate need of repair.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the state cannot afford the multibillion dollar project and is considering asking private companies for help.
Federal funding for bridge projects in the city remains uncertain due to budget cuts.
Schwartz and LePatner, both strong advocates of preventive maintenance strategies, call for prioritized funds to address bridges before they reach a much costlier state of disrepair.
One of the problems, said Schwartz, is that, unlike with teachers and education, “if you cut the oilers and painters of bridges, no one will scream, and yet we’ll lose a fortune in the future.”
“State and city budgets for transportation have been under withering pressure for a number of years and will increasingly find themselves in more harden times,” LePatner said.
Congress created the Federal Highway Bridge Program to fix and replace bridges, but its current funding doesn’t suffice to handle the rapid deterioration of America’s crossings. According to 2009 FHWA figures, an estimated $70.9 billion is needed to eliminate the nationwide backlog in bridge maintenance and repair, but appropriations for the task amount to only $5.2 billion.
“We are falling behind every year by nearly $100 billion in attending to needed repairs. And every year the total cost of replacement goes up and up and up,” LePatner said.
“That’s going to be a major issue.”