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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 21, 2010
Failing to bridge the gap
By Zach Simeone
BERNE The Kaehler Lane Bridge is one of more than 100 deficient bridges in Albany County, and has been in need of repair for more than a decade, according to the New York State Department of Transportation.
This Berne bridge, the only town-owned bridge in the Hilltowns on the DOT’s list of red flagged bridges, is also the only link between residents in the Kaehler-Chrysler Lane neighborhood and the rest of town.
While such bridges are typically built to a 40-ton standard, the Kaehler Lane Bridge was posted at three tons last month, raising concerns among residents that they would lose their mortgages if fire trucks couldn’t cross. Trucks bearing hay crops couldn’t cross either, nor could trucks carrying logged wood. And, residents said, fuel trucks were too heavy to traverse the bridge in order to provide them with oil this winter.
A temporary brace, placed this week by the town, has raised the limit to 15 tons, but remaining concerns are emblematic of those faced by people across the state who rely on bridges for their livelihood.
An audit last week from the Office of the New York State Comptroller listed more than 1,000 structural defects in the state’s bridges. Plans to replace the Kaehler Lane Bridge have been put off due to a lack funds, though intermittent repairs have allowed the bridge to remain functional.
DOT spokesmen told The Enterprise this week that possible solutions range from a $24,000 steel-repair project to a $900,000 replacement project, though bids from local contractors in recent years have come in around $200,000 for replacement.
Congressman Paul Tonko’s federal transportation bill includes a $234,000 earmark for replacement of the Kaehler Lane Bridge, and the town’s 2010 budget contains a $216,000 increase in highway department revenues in anticipation of that grant money.
One Kaehler Lane resident, Leo Vane, appealed to the Berne Town Board last week, laying out the recent history of the bridge, built in 1978. He presented a letter from a former fire commissioner, stating that front-line attack trucks and tankers the department’s main firefighting tools could not respond to a fire across the Kaehler Lane Bridge.
“We have a real issue here, folks, and I’m not going to sit idly by, knowing that my house is not protected,” Vane told the town board. He requested written verification from the town’s fire commissioners that his and his neighbors’ homes would be protected.
He also addressed the town’s hold-harmless agreement, recently distributed to Kaehler Lane and Chrysler Lane residents, stating that repairs would soon be completed, and offering them oil-delivery services in the meantime if they waive the right to hold the town responsible for any injury or damage to property during the delivery. Vane called this an insult to his intelligence.
His neighbor, Brian Schneible, expressed concerns as well.
“I have a wife and a four-month-old child across that bridge,” Schneible told the board. “If there’s a fire, what do we do?”
On Nov. 12, 2008, Thomas McQuade, a former Berne fire commissioner, wrote a letter to Raymond Storm, former Berne highway superintendent. The adjustment of the bridge’s weight limit to 15 tons “prohibits front-line attack trucks and tankers from responding to fires at any location on Kaehler and Chrysler Lane,” McQuade wrote.
Commissioner Michael Baker said this week that this never meant that those residents would be denied fire protection.
“We do have some lighter equipment that could have gone across the bridge,” Baker said. “If nothing else, we have a lightweight international pumper with a 1,000-gallons-a-minute pump on it, and it could cross the bridge and drop a line right there.”
Baker added that, shortly after McQuade sent that letter to Storm, the town took the same measure it took last Tuesday: the bridge was braced with an aluminum ramp, purchased from the United States Army.
Kenneth Weaver, who worked in the town’s highway department for more than 30 years before being elected highway superintendent in November, said that the town keeps these ramps handy, and that their utility in enhancing the bridge was coincidental.
“We buy these things periodically, thinking we could use them for different applications,” Weaver said. “Anyways, it worked out that these things did stand the bridge; they went from one abutment to the other. So, right now, it’s at least safe for the winter to get oil trucks over. But, come spring, something’s got to be done with it we need a new bridge.”
The installation of that ramp last week allowed for a return of the bridge’s weight limit to 15 tons; it had been reduced to three tons late last year and, on Dec.15, former Supervisor Kevin Crosier declared a state of emergency.
But even with a three-ton limit, Baker said that the town’s lightweight firefighting equipment would have done the job.
On Sept. 22, 1998, Richard Rapp, who was then the county’s public works commissioner, wrote a letter to Alan Zuk, who was then Berne’s supervisor, informing him that the Kaehler Lane Bridge was on the state’s critical-bridge list, meaning that the bridge has been in need of repair, if not replacement, for more than 11 years.
On July 15, 2003, the DOT inspected the bridge and reported these findings: the bearing areas on both ends of the bridge were buried in dirt and rubble and could not be seen; the sloped ends of the bridge direct runoff onto the bridge, possibly causing corrosion; visible diaphragms and steel beams throughout the bridge superstructure contained several areas of corrosion and sheet delamination; and two-thirds of the steel area on the bridge had developed rust.
In October of 2008, the town contracted with a private company, Town and County Bridge and Rail, for $4,040-worth of repair work, temporarily lowering the state’s red flag.
A letter from Andrew Bell, an engineer who has worked closely with the town, to Lou Rehder of the DOT in November provided details on the repairs: “Specifically, the girders were blocked up with shim plates between the face of the abutment and the deteriorated area to shorten the span length, and solid timbers were stacked from the bridge seat up to the bottom of the deck in each bay (between each girder) to fully support the deck. These measures will remain in place until the superstructure is replaced early in the 2009 construction season.”
The bridge was never replaced, but the town did receive bids for the project that year.
On March 31, 2009, Town and County Bridge and Rail offered to replace the bridge for $189,154. On April 6, ING Civil Inc. submitted a bid in the amount of $184,000 for the project.
The money wasn’t there.
Eventually, the DOT reduced the bridge’s weight limit to three tons and, in December, Supervisor Crosier declared the state of emergency, but Leo Vane says that he and his neighbors across the bridge were never informed about the reduction.
Now, with the newly installed aluminum brace, the bridge can once again support 15 tons of weight. The two aluminum ramps purchased in May from the Army cost $700 each; the ramps were trucked into Berne by J.E. Kocak Trucking for $1,970; and $14,910 will be paid to Pollard Excavating for its assistance in installing the brace last week.
According to Carol Breen, a spokesperson for the DOT, the greatest enemy of these bridges is time.
“The bridges in New York State are aging,” Breen told The Enterprise this week. “We have one of the oldest infrastructures in the country, because we were one of the first states to be settled. We also, obviously, have one of the harshest seasonal conditions in the country. Between the two of those things, our infrastructure takes a beating.”
There are 26 bridges in the Enterprise coverage area that the DOT considers to be in deficient condition 13 in the Hilltowns, seven in Guilderland, and six in New Scotland [see accompanying chart].
A handful of these bridges have the federal designation “SD,” which stands for “structurally deficient.” These bridges, when left open to traffic, typically require maintenance, repair, and in some cases replacement to remain in service. These bridges are often posted with weight limits.
Others have the federal designation “FO,” which stands for “functionally obsolete.” These bridges are unable to function as they were originally intended, and are unable to meet current standards for managing the volume of traffic they carry.
The interstate system was built mostly in the 1950s, making many of the interstate bridges close to 60 years old. Some New York bridges date back to the 1800s.
“Salt takes its toll on bridges,” said Thomas Hoffman, also with the DOT. “All the steel components like a car, they rust out. It costs a lot to paint them, and there are environmental considerations. So, repair is very expensive, as, obviously, is replacement.”
On the DOT’s list of the 300-plus bridges in Albany County, each structure is assigned a numerical condition rating, between 1 and 7, with ratings lower than 5 meaning the bridge is “deficient.” But, while nearly a third of these bridges have a deficient condition rating, this does not necessarily mean the bridges are unsafe.
“It’s really a condition rating, not a safety rating,” Hoffman said. “All the components of a bridge are averaged together to come up with the condition rating. I mean, you can feel safe driving down the road with a rusty car, as long as the brakes work. If the brakes don’t work, then you have a problem,” he said.
One such structural victim was the Crown Point Bridge, which stretched across Lake Champlain, connecting West Addison, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y. An inspection in October revealed deep cracks in two of the bridge’s concrete piers, and the bridge was closed down soon after. On Dec. 28, the bridge was blown up. On the state’s 1-to-7 rating scale, this historic landmark was a 3.3, Breen said.
When asked if the destruction of the Crown Point Bridge and the publicity surrounding it could be used by the DOT as leverage to get federal aid for bridge repairs, Breen was unsure.
“I think we’re going to be using a lot of different tools to make a plea for more funding, especially on the federal level,” said Breen. “It’s so important. We have so many needs, and it’s really a public safety issue. As to whether we’ll point to [the Crown Point Bridge] as an example, I’m not sure.”
With regard to the Kaehler Lane Bridge, Hoffman and Breen both mentioned possible solutions that have been discussed by the DOT and the New York State Emergency Management Office. The one Breen described is the cheaper of the two, and by a wide margin.
“It’s basically a steel-repair project,” Breen said. “The cost of that project, which wouldn’t be a full replacement, would be $24,000, but that’s an estimate based on what we’ve done with things like that in the past. The town would really have to come up with a design, and I don’t know how long these steel repairs would get them through, but it would at least allow them to really open the bridge back up.”
While 40 tons is the DOT’s standard weight for bridges, Breen is doubtful that a steel repair would allow this bridge to hold such weight.
“The key here would be to bring it up enough so that the people there could function,” she said.
Hoffman offered a far more costly solution.
“We did throw out a ballpark figure for a full replacement, meeting all federal and state standards, along with construction, inspection, and design, and I think the total was about $900,000,” Hoffman said.
But, as evidenced by the bids the town received last year, there are solutions that fall in the middle of that price range. For now, officials in Berne remain hopeful that the town will receive the $234,000 in Congressman Tonko’s transportation bill, which was re-authorized on Dec. 18, and has yet to be approved.