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DOT official says canal bridges are low-volume and costly to maintain

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 9 September 2013 at 12:00 am

Formula leaves canal spans short on funding

Photos by Tom Rivers – The Brown Street Bridge in Albion was shut down in July 2012 after a DOT inspection revealed structural deficiencies.

ALBION – Bob Traver hears the outcry from elected officials in Orleans County, that too many canal bridges are either closed or have weight restrictions.

That hinders commerce, school buses and emergency vehicles, and also inconveniences residences, Traver, regional director for the Department of Transportation, told Orleans County officials during a meeting today.

But Traver said the funding formulas for prioritizing bridge repairs are against rural counties. The state and federal governments, which have both cut bridge funding in recent years, want the dollars to go to high-volume projects, he said.

Canal bridges not only tend to be located in small towns without heavy traffic, but the bridges are historic structures that are far more costly to repair or replace than modern spans, Traver said. A lift bridge, in particular, is a budget buster, costing about three or four times the maintenance of the historic truss bridges, Traver said.

The truss bridges, which were constructed about a century ago during the canal’s widening, cost about twice as much as a modern bridge for upkeep.

“You have lower volume and higher cost,” Traver told a trio of county officials – Legislature Chairman David Callard, Chief Administrative Officer Chuck Nesbitt and Highway Superintendent Jerry Gray.

The state Department of Transportation overhauled the Ingersoll Street lift bridge, spending $3.5 million on the Albion bridge, which reopened in 2007. A revised funding formula makes it more difficult to devote that much money to a low-volume bridge.

“For the price of fixing a canal bridge we can do three bridges that handle a lot more traffic,” Traver said.

He has advocated the state and federal governments to bend the formula and devote more resources for the canal bridges because a closed bridge can paralyze parts of a canal community. The spans are also critical to moving farm products and other commercial goods.

“I’ve been lobbying that the canal bridges are vital to the communities they serve,” Traver said.

The DOT has 11 regions with Orleans part of Region 4 based in Rochester. That region is home to 53 percent of the historic canal bridges and 12 of the 17 lift bridges. Seven of the lift bridges are in Orleans, more than in any other county.

Traver has told state officials that Region 4 should get more money than the formula provides because of the added costs of the canal infrastructure.

“I’ve been lobbying behind the scenes that we’re different than the other regions,” Traver told county officials. “I don’t think we’re being given what we need.”

The state will find resources for the lift bridges should they go down, Traver said, because those bridges are “sacred” in the eyes of the state. However, the truss bridges, like the one that was shut down last year on Brown Street in Albion, may wait years for the funding to come through.

Orleans officials said the formula shouldn’t be geared so much to traffic counts. Orleans County and other rural areas are important farming communities and agricultural commodities are needed by residents in the bigger counties.

“When I drive in the city of Rochester, I’m yet to see a farm field,” Jerry Gray, the county highway superintendent, told Traver. “We provide your food and nourishment. You need us.”

Traver said he continues to try to make those arguments to high-ranking state officials, as well as playing the tourism angle for lift bridges, that they are unique with historical value.

He said all of the DOT regions want more money for bridge maintenance.

“Everyone is feeling the same pain,” he said. “State-wide we’re definitely losing ground on our highways and bridges.”