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Sticker shock: Corroded bridges of Great Barrington need $11 million in repairs

It is not yet clear whether the Division Street bridge would be closed during construction or remain open with one lane.

 Great Barrington — It was inevitable — and it will be expensive. Buried in the proposed town budget for fiscal year 2020 is a request for $4 million to repair the Division Street bridge.

The request from Sean VanDeusen, who heads the town’s Public Works Department, shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it still gave the Selectboard and the town Finance Committee pause last week during their annual budget deliberations.

Members of the Selectboard and Finance Committee receive the update on town bridges during deliberations on the proposed 2020 town budget. From left, Ed Abrahams and Steve Bannon of the Selectboard and Tom Blauvelt, Will Curletti and Michelle Loubert of the Finance Committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“This is not a do-it-yourself repair,” cracked Finance Committee member Tom Blauvelt. Actually, Blauvelt’s quip is an example of what the ancient Greeks called litotes, or understatement for effect. 

Since it is not located on a state highway, the Division Street bridge would be a town project. There is the possibility of state grant money, though it is not exactly a slam dunk, VanDeusen said.

Significant corrosion can be seen under the Division Street bridge and above the Housatonic River. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“So we are only asking for the authority to borrow,” VanDeusen told the panels. “We would … initially do the preliminary engineering, and the engineering, and along the way look for any grant we could.”

If no grants are forthcoming, “We’re going to have to fund it,” VanDeusen added. “We really need to make some improvements to that bridge.” If no repairs are made, VanDeusen said “it won’t be long before” the span will be reduced to one lane and eventually closed by the state Department of Transportation. 

Town DPW head Sean VanDeusen tells the selectboard and finance committee that improvements must be made to the Division Street bridge or it could be reduced to one lane or eventually closed by the state. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Built in 1950, the Division Street bridge has a troubled recent history. In September, MassDOT engineers declared the bridge to be “structurally deficient.” The town-owned bridge has been inspected by MassDOT at least three times since July 2015. At that time, MassDOT recommended “Bridge rehabilitation because of general structure deterioration or inadequate strength.” The estimated cost was more than $1.7 million.

But a “fracture critical” inspection in the July of 2017 found areas of light to moderate rust, a corrosion hole in a floor beam and “accelerated deterioration” in the decking. The railing and drainage system also appear to be compromised. 

At only 20 feet wide, the Division Street bridge is narrow and has no sidewalks or shoulders. Residents complain often that overweight vehicles routinely drive over the bridge. As of 2013, the average daily traffic was 5,400, according to

Bridge girders, including the defective steel stringers, can be seen next to a concrete abutment displaying the year the Division Street bridge in Housatonic was finished. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Two big vehicles can’t go across at the same time — never mind pedestrians on it,” said finance committee member Michelle Loubert, who lives near the bridge and has complained about the lack of enforcement on weight limits. “If you get caught walking, running, cycling on that bridge with a truck, you’re in trouble.”

Van Deusen described the Division Street project as a 40-year fix. A new bridge would probably cost twice as much.

“This would be a long-term fix, for 40 years or more,” Van Deusen explained. “It will not make it wider; it is not going to be a new bridge. This is just to get us some time.” 

A sign near the Division Street bridge in Housatonic warns motorists of weight limits on different classes of truck. After an inspection last month, MassDOT has directed a consultant to come up with a new load rating. Photo: Michelle Loubert

Van Deusen is looking to start engineering work on the bridge later this year. Then there will be a lot of “back-and-forth between our engineers and MassDOT. The whole process would take a year and half.”

It is not yet clear whether the bridge would be closed during construction or remain open with one lane. MassDOT says leaving a lane open is less disruptive to travelers and commuters (and so preferred by locals) but it prolongs construction time compared to closing the span altogether.

The town has a number of bridges that need attention. The Park Street bridge in Housatonic was replaced in 2017 after being deemed by MassDOT to be “structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.” 

The Cottage Street bridge is scheduled to be replaced in 2020 but was closed abruptly last month to after MassDOT identified deficiencies that warranted closure to vehicles.” Sidewalks remain open.

The Cottage Street bridge was closed last fall due to deterioration. Photo: Bernard Drew

That project is being funded by a $4.4 million Transportation Improvement Program grant through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Those funds, however, will not be available until 2023. Meanwhile, officials are working on a temporary repair plan that will allow the span to reopen until the replacement of the 84-year-old bridge can be installed. The latter is in the design phase.

But the town’s bridge woes don’t end there. In VanDeusen’s fiscal 2023 capital budget request is $3 million to repair the Brookside Road bridge. VanDeusen said that bridge is essentially a twin to the one on Division Street, so there could be some savings in engineering costs. In addition, Brookside is in somewhat better shape than the Division Street span.

The DPW is also requesting $3 million in repairs for the Brookside Road bridge starting in 2023. Photo: Terry Cowgill

And more construction is required elsewhere in town, though mostly not on the town’s dime. Next year MassDOT is expected to begin construction on a $2 million redesign of the intersection of Routes 7 and 23, including the replacement of the existing intersection near the police station with a controversial roundabout proposed by MassDOT.  

After the roundabout is completed, there will be a $6.9 million rebuild of Main Street from Saint James Place to the area of the Claire Teague Senior Center and National Grid office on Route 7.

And beginning this spring, work will commence on a $2.1 million makeover of School, Church, Bridge and Railroad streets. Click here for an article on a town workshop on that project that was held in May. It includes video of the workshop.


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