Are local bridges ready for flash floods?
Known for its snow and cold, the North Country may face a new threat as average temperatures rise: heavy downpours and flash flooding that overwhelm infrastructure, battering bridges and washing over roads.
Surveys show that both Franklin and Essex counties exceed state and national averages for the proportion of bridges rated “structurally deficient.”
More rain, falling faster
As anyone who has sat through a humid summer day knows, warm air can hold more water vapor than cool air. When cold air and warm, humid air meet, condensation causes the warm air to drop its load of water.
According to climate scientists, heavy downpours are increasing nationally, and the amount of water falling on the heaviest rain days is also increasing. The federal Global Change Research Program summarizes the data: “Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average. This increase has been greatest in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains — more than 30 percent above the 1901-1960 average. There has also been an increase in flooding events in the Midwest and Northeast, where the largest increases in heavy rain amounts have occurred.”
In the town of Keene, thanks to Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, the state Department of Transportation recently replaced seven bridges. The town was temporarily cut off from the outside world after Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, when state Route 73 in St. Huberts was wiped out by flash flooding. Some residents said the East Branch of the AuSable River rose 20 feet. Gulf Brook, a tributary of the river, overflowed its banks and took out huge chunks of the Keene firehouse. Many homes were damaged as well.
Thanks to a declaration of emergency by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the bridges in Keene came back online in two years, a speed unheard of for state projects. Last year the state promised $200 million for local governments to repair bridges and culverts across the state. The DOT just finished replacing two well-used bridges in Lake Placid and AuSable Forks. This year $2.483 million was earmarked for a bridge in Essex County, on Campsite Road over the Hudson River in Newcomb, and another $713,000 went to Franklin County for the Lane Street bridge over the Salmon River in Malone.
Funding for bridge repairs often depends upon how many people drive over them, so heavily traveled highways get priority. Rural roads, although they may be critical routes for school buses or freight and mail delivery, have fewer travelers and therefore fall lower on the list for replacement.
Where the water flowing under a road is a small stream or creek, culverts are placed instead of costly bridges. Statewide, high-water events are encouraging local highway departments to replace older, smaller culverts with larger ones.
“Generally, when we’re replacing culverts, we go up a size,” said town of Franklin Highway Superintendent Jacques DeMars.
Harrietstown Highway Superintendent Craig Donaldson agreed: “Every time we replace them, we upgrade.” He added that in some places extra culverts were added for high-water events.
Are the bridges ready for more flash floods?
How safe are the bridges in Franklin and Essex County, and how ready are they for the next flash flood?
The National Bridge Inventory, a database maintained by the Federal Highway Administration, finds the percentage of bridges in Franklin and Essex counties that are structurally deficient to be more than twice the national average.
In Essex County, 33 of the 251 bridges (13 percent) are structurally deficient, and in Franklin County 36 of the 189 bridges (19 percent) are structurally deficient. Nationally, the average is 10 percent, and in New York state the average is around 11 percent.
Structurally deficient means that significant load-carrying elements of the bridge are in poor condition or worse. While the bridge may be safe and not in danger of collapse, it has problems that have to be fixed. Regional representatives of the DOT make a yearly report and will “flag” bridges that fall below a certain standard. The next step, if the bridge is not repaired, is that a weight limit will be posted. If the bridge continues to deteriorate, it is closed.
Another classification, “functionally obsolete,” refers to bridges that are outdated, either in the amount of traffic they serve, or their structural design elements that may no longer be standard. Steel-deck and one-lane bridges are often marked functionally obsolete.
The average age of bridges in Essex County is 38.4 years; in Franklin the average age is 43.2.
Brad Marsh, appointed Franklin County’s highway superintendent a little over a month ago after longtime highway super John Hutchins retired, said his predecessor “did some nice work.” Marsh said that a number of bridge projects were completed over the last decade, and the county is in good shape.
While this is not a comprehensive list, the following Franklin County bridges are classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete:
¯ In Saranac Lake, the bridge over the Saranac River on what state databases call Parking Lot Drive, between Dorsey Street and a village parking lot
¯ Woodruff Street bridge, built in 1949 in Saranac Lake
¯ Wawbeek Road crossing Panther Swamp, 1.7 miles southeast of Wawbeek near the Route 3 and 30 junction, was built in 1960. This steel-deck bridge has a 15.4 sufficiency rating.
¯ Merrill Road crossing Negro Brook, 2.4 miles west of Vermontville, although built in 1987, has a 46.1 percent sufficiency rating.
¯ Howe Road crossing the North Branch of the Saranac River, 1 mile southwest of Loon Lake, was built in 1900, then rebuilt in 1977. It has a 22 percent sufficiency rating and is posted to prohibit heavy loads.
¯ Thatcherville Road crossing the North Branch of the Saranac River, built in 1965, has a sufficiency rating of 78.8 percent.
¯ The Campsite Road bridge over Fish Creek, although built in 1935, retains a 67.7 sufficiency. It’s sound, but its stone and log construction, combined with steel deck, render it functionally obsolete.
¯ Coreys Road bridge crossing Stony Creek, built in 2003, also functionally obsolete.
The 33 structurally deficient Essex County bridges include the following:
¯ In the town of Wilmington at Whiteface Mountain Ski Area, built 1957
¯ In the village of Keeseville, River Street, built in 1878
¯ In Newcomb, Tahawas Road over Sanford Lake, built 1941
¯ In North Hudson, Interstate 87 and Branch Road over the Branch River, built in 1965
¯ In Schroon Lake, U.S. Route 9 over Rogers Brook, built in 1926
¯ In Port Henry, Dock Street over Mill Brook, built in 1941
¯ In the town of Schroon, Fraternal Land Road over Paradox Creek, built in 1980
¯ In the town of Ticonderoga, Route 22 over Ticonderoga Creek, built in 1962.
Who pays to fix bridges?
It’s not always clear whose job it is to fix bridges.
“Bridges are expensive,” said Marsh.
Contacted by this paper for comments, town highway superintendents referred questions to county highway superintendents, who said the bridges are supervised by the state DOT.
“We get a report and are told, ‘You have to fix this,'” said Marsh. “They do a yearly inspection and rate the bridge on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being excellent.”
Regional DOT engineers declined comment and referred questions to regional DOT public information officer Bryan Viggiani, based in Albany.
Viggiani, for his part, declined to comment, saying, “It would be best for you to talk with those in local government at either the county or town level.” He referred to the state comptroller’s recent report on bridges, released Oct. 10.
That report, released by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Oct. 10, found the the number of structurally deficient locally owned bridges has gone down in recent years, but it raised concerns about how local governments will find funding for repairs as Washington considers changes to infrastructure aid.
“Local communities are facing a big price tag for maintaining and repairing bridges,” DiNapoli wrote in the report. “These structures are aging and the cost for repairs will likely only increase over time. Many local governments understand the importance of long-term planning for their infrastructure needs but they will need help. While the state has taken steps to make funds for repairs available, the assistance of the federal government has also been critical. Difficult decisions lie ahead, but these infrastructure needs must be addressed.”
Except for emergency assistance for areas hit by severe winter weather, funding levels for traditional state aid programs have remained flat in recent years. On the federal level, funding for local bridge improvements may be on the budget chopping block. The current administration in Washington has promised an infrastructure funding plan that relies heavily on public-private partnerships, which would encourage private companies to rebuild highways and bridges by offering them the power to collect tolls. Most of the federal infrastructure package will be targeted at such large projects.
Acknowledging that much of the rural highway and bridge infrastructure may require a different mode of funding, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget has indicated that there are current loan programs that can be used to upgrade local bridges. Most federal funds dedicated to infrastructure improvement will be used to try to attract and leverage private spending.