State Moves Forward In Last Phase Of Bridge Repair Project

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You may remember back in 2007 when the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring nearly 150 more.

Investigations after the collapse would find that the bridge was structurally deficient — meaning that it was showing significant deterioration.

That prompted a national review of bridge conditions, including here in Massachusetts, where, at the time, the state had more than 500 structurally deficient bridges.

Authorities have closed this portion of Route 79 in Fall River, where workers will demolish more than a mile of elevated roadway as part of the Accelerated Bridge Program. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)
Authorities have closed this portion of Route 79 in Fall River, where workers will demolish more than a mile of elevated roadway as part of the Accelerated Bridge Program. (Jack Lepiarz/WBUR)

“Structurally deficient is more of a warning, like a yellow light,” said Massachusetts Highway Administrator Frank DePaola. "You need to pay attention to the structure because if left unattended, it could develop into something more serious.”

In response, state lawmakers approved the Accelerated Bridge Program, an eight-year, $3 billion project that drastically increased funding for bridges that had fallen into disrepair.

That was five years ago. The state has since repaired more than 100 bridges and taken them off the structurally deficient list. Through 2016, workers will focus on five mega-projects, like the Route 79 viaduct in Fall River.

Throughout the winter, workers will demolish a mile-long stretch of elevated roadway, piece by piece.

“Once this is all cleaned up and taken away, they’re going to start on the upper deck, which is Route 79 northbound,” said Kevin Cassidy, chief engineer on the project. “They’re going to be removing that in huge sections.”

The $200 million project is expected to last most of the winter, with rebuilding the roadway set to start next year, replacing the elevated Route 79 with a street-level boulevard.

There are four other mega-projects around the state. Chances are that if you drive in Massachusetts, you’re affected by one of them. They are:

- the Longfellow Bridge in Boston;
- the Fore River Bridge on Route 3 in Quincy;
- the Burns Bridge on Route 9 in Worcester;
- and the Whittier Bridge, where Interstate 95 crosses the Merrimack River.

These projects are the capstones on eight years of work on structurally deficient bridges.

DePaola says when the Accelerated Bridge Program began in 2008, the state had almost 550 structurally deficient bridges, and that number was growing despite an annual $120 million in federal transportation aid.

“We were slowly losing ground,” he said, adding that much of the funding went to help pay for the Big Dig. "Even with that investment there were more bridges becoming structurally deficient than we were able to fix and take off the list.”

Five years later, the state has crossed 100 bridges off that list.

“The ticket for correcting infrastructure in general, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, is over $2.2 trillion," said Barry LePatner, a New York construction lawyer and one of the country’s leading advocates for fixing aging bridges. "Everyone’s eyes glaze over.”

LePatner says for too long there’s been not enough federal funding to help states maintain bridges and roadways built in the 1950s or '60s that are reaching the end of their lifespan.

“Most states have come to the conclusion that the federal government is not coming to their aid," he said. "And so what they are doing is committing as much funds as they can with the limited constraints that these difficult times in government are permitting.”

LePatner has set up a website that tracks bridges at risk of a catastrophic failure — like what happened in Minneapolis. Using data from 2009, the site counted more than 90 such bridges in Massachusetts.

Most of those have either been addressed, or are in line to be repaired under the Accelerated Bridge Program.

But even after the eight-year program is completed, Massachusetts will still have more than 400 structurally deficient bridges.

DePaola says that was the point all along: not to fix every bridge, but those most in need of repair, and those most important to their area’s economic well-being.

He adds that with extra infrastructure funding approved by the Legislature over the summer, the state should be able to whittle down the number of structurally deficient bridges.

“Based on our historical data, we should be able to keep trending our number of structurally deficient bridges downward,” he said. "Not at a rate of 100 in eight years, but we hope to keep that line trending downward.”

This program aired on December 17, 2013.

Headshot of Jack Lepiarz

Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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