Housatonic — The town has an answer to residents concerned about the integrity of the Division Street bridge: Please be patient. Help is on the way.
The condition of the bridge has taken on a new urgency after the results of a July inspection, just obtained by The Edge before deadline, and a determination by state engineers that the span is now “structurally deficient.”
“Please note that the bridge’s overall condition rating was lowered from a 5 to a 4 due to the condition of the stringers identified during the last routine inspection that occurred on July 27, 2017,” Judith Riley, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, told The Edge in an email. “A subsequent Special Member Inspection was completed in July 2018, and at that time it was reported that the stringers are continuing to deteriorate.”
Riley emphasized that the fact that the bridge has been deemed structurally deficient does not mean it is unsafe. If it were unsafe, the bridge would be closed to vehicular traffic.
The rickety-looking bridge has long been the subject of complaints and concerns by nearby residents and passersby who have questioned its structural integrity and the wisdom of allowing large vehicles such as dump trucks and semi-tractor trailers to rumble over its pockmarked decking.
But Sean VanDeusen, who heads the town’s Department of Public Works, told The Edge he planned to submit a formal proposal to town officials to rehabilitate the 1950s-era bridge when budget season begins in the winter or early spring.
“We have been working on the engineering for what it would cost,” said VanDeusen, who did not yet want to venture a guess on the price tag. “I anticipate going forward this spring to the selectmen and the finance committee with a proposal to fix the decking and address any structural deficiencies. It should be a 30- to 40-year fix.”
The town-owned bridge has been inspected by MassDOT at least three times since July 2015. Click here to read inspection report from three years ago. At that time, MassDOT recommended “Bridge rehabilitation because of general structure deterioration or inadequate strength.” The estimated cost was more than $1.7 million.
Another inspection was performed in July of last year. That field inspection report can be viewed by clicking here. A more extensive “fracture critical” report can be found here. The inspection 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.
VanDeusen confirmed that MassDOT conducted another inspection two or three weeks ago but the report has not been finalized, so the town has not yet received it. But Riley, the MassDOT spokesperson, summarized it for The Edge (see above).
All the state’s more than 5,000 bridges are inspected at least every other year, more often for bridges deemed to be structurally deficient. The 2017 MassDOT inspection did not designate the Division Street bridge as such. But the 2015 inspection said that, structurally, the bridge “meets minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is.”
Division Street resident Michelle Loubert, who is also a member of the town’s finance committee, spoke at Monday’s selectboard meeting to complain of heavy truck traffic over the bridge, which is only 20 feet wide. She said concrete and dump trucks start rumbling down Division Street at 7 a.m. and don’t usually stop until 4 p.m.
See video below by Michelle Loubert of a pair of dump trucks rumbling over the Division Street bridge shortly after 7 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 17:
“It is heavily traveled by runner and cyclists,” Loubert told The Edge. “I’ve seen several close calls.”
Loubert pointed to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicating the average weight of a loaded concrete truck is 33 tons, while the average for loaded dump trucks is 36 tons. Meanwhile, the maximum weight limit for the Division Street bridge is 29 tons.
The 2017 MassDOT inspection report did not suggest new weight limits, but MassDOT officials added that “we recommend to have a new load rating analysis be performed for this bridge to account for the current deterioration.”
In her email of today, Riley, the MassDOT spokesperson, said, “As a result of the inspection and based on the new condition of the bridge, a new load rating request was submitted and has been assigned to the consultant firm of Michael Baker Jr. Inc.”
VanDeusen characterized Division Street as “one of the busiest streets in town,” in part because motorists use it to avoid downtown Great Barrington or the busy commercial corridor of Stockbridge Road. A 2013 report estimated average daily traffic for the bridge of 5,400, which is a lot of vehicles for such a small span. Trucks, the report said, accounted for 6 percent of total traffic.
The bridge itself is only 20 feet wide between the curbs, so it is impossible for a dump truck or semi-tractor trailer to cross the span if there is oncoming traffic. In addition, as this reporter discovered during a site visit late Tuesday afternoon, there is no room at all for pedestrians. Vehicles were traveling at 50 miles per hour or more, so the only way to cross the bridge on foot was to wait for a lull in traffic and then run across to the other side.
One resident who lives next to the span and did not wish to be identified told The Edge his house shakes when large trucks cross the bridge.
“If they exceed the weight limit, they should not be allowed to go through,” said Loubert, who acknowledged that the town has no readily available mechanism for enforcement.
VanDeusen said Division Street was repaved this summer, which has the perverse effect of increasing vehicle speeds. He had wanted to hold off on the repaving until the bridge was repaired but the road was in such terrible shape that he went ahead and resurfaced it.
In the last several years, the town has addressed problems at various bridges in Great Barrington. In 2015, the town received a state grant of about $1 million to pay for an upgrade to the Bridge Street bridge.
This spring the town received a $5 million grant to replace the Cottage Street bridge. As late as 2016, that bridge’s condition was rated “poor.” And of course, the state made major repairs to the Park Street bridge in Housatonic during the course of the last two years. That span was reopened to two-way traffic only this year.
After Division Street, next on VanDeusen’s list will be the Brookside Road bridge, which crosses the Housatonic between Bostwick Gardens and Camp Eisner. The Brookside bridge was built in 1949. VanDeusen said it was a “twin” of the Division Street bridge. Both were replacement bridges built at roughly the same time after major floods.
The so-called Brown bridge at the intersection of routes 7 and 41, north of downtown, is thought to be in better shape—notwithstanding the fact that motorists stopped at the traffic signal on the Brown bridge can feel the span shudder when a truck rumbles over it.
Like Brookside, the Division Street bridge is a through-truss bridge. It spans 134 feet across the Housatonic River, with a vertical clearance of slightly more than 14 feet. The two most recent reports recommended it be rehabilitated “because of general structure deterioration or inadequate strength.”
Out of more than 5,000 bridges in Massachusetts, the state has identified 482 as being structurally deficient, including 47 in Berkshire County (now 48 with the addition of Division Street), and 4,718 in need of repair statewide.
Bridge repairs are often delayed or staggered because of the pressures municipal and state officials are under to keep taxes from rising too quickly.
“These are sizable expenditures,” VanDeusen explained. “And they take a lot of resources.”