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Great Barrington Master Plan anticipated infrastructure upgrades

By Saturday, Nov 30, 2019 Letters 7

To the editor:

In reference to Alan Chartock’s column about the Division Street Bridge being closed, some observations about local government’s capacity for strategic perspective:
Great Barrington’s Master Plan, the product of two years of research and community consultation, was finished in 2013. (Full disclosure: I was co-chair of the committee that produced this report.) Its recommendations about bridges have been generally followed, by the state and by the town government.

Aging infrastructure is one of the plan’s big concerns. All kinds of public investments, dating back more than half a century – schools, bridges, water and wastewater systems, buildings, roads – need major work or replacement. Much of this aging infrastructure is not up to town government to decide about, at least not directly, even though town residents pay for it. When the Master Plan was being prepared, the wastewater treatment plant, a separate enterprise, needed to invest $20 million to comply with the law. The Fire District, an even more separate entity, was replacing century-old water lines, while the separate water service in Housatonic also needed attention. The regional school district, yet another separate entity, was considering improvement or replacement for the high school which would cost Great Barrington taxpayers tens of millions. These fiscal realities constrain how the town sets priorities for its own spending.

Focusing on bridges: there are 17 of them in Great Barrington, and the state is responsible for seven. The state bridge that was most in need of repair when the Plan was prepared was the Park Street bridge in Housatonic. That work has now been done. The brown bridge on Route 7, which is nearly 90 years old, is also a state responsibility. It was considered to be in decent shape then, but it demanded attention because of its critical importance in area’s highway system. It carries about 20,000 vehicles per day, ten times more than the Division Street bridges. The state was considering a major replacement and realignment for the brown bridge, but the state has evidently decided that would take too long so it will be repaired next year.

The Master Plan recommended that bridge repairs be prioritized in the town’s five-year capital improvement plans. The town has taken action about its deficient bridges in priority order as the Plan recommended. The Bridge Street bridge, one of three that was considered functionally obsolete, was tackled first. It was assigned the highest priority because of its poor condition and because of its importance to economic development in that part of town and as an alternative to the brown bridge. The town got the funds and did the repair. Next in priority, less centrally located but in slightly worse condition, was the Division Street bridge over the Housatonic. The town has appropriated the funds: this work represents the bulk of the $7 million for road work that was voted at this year’s May town meeting. The low-traffic Cottage Street bridge had fared better in the 2010 state inspection, but the Master Plan nonetheless flagged it because of rust and structural concerns, leading to a load limit and now closure pending a plan for repair.

“Fixing bridges is a lengthy and expensive proposition,” says the Master Plan, Vol 2, p. 120. Authorizing the money is one step in a process that takes three or four years. Looking backwards, it is easy to say that the town should have moved sooner. Perhaps the town should have decided five years ago that fixing all of the bridges was not just a high priority, but its number one priority. What would then have been shifted to a lower priority? Suppose the town had floated a $15 million bridge bond in 2014. It might have decided to relieve the fiscal burden by postponing the then-projected $20 million investment in the sewage treatment plant. Would we now be outraged to be trucking sewage elsewhere for treatment because our plant was shut down for non-compliance with state and federal environmental laws?

Across the entire state, indeed the entire country, obsolete infrastructure is a serious problem. Roads and bridges around here date from when the automobile was almost a novelty, so it should not be surprising that they are falling apart. As local government now has to deal with this state and national problem one crumbling viaduct – and quaint town hall, and lovely old library, and slowly disappearing cemetery, and empty school, and abandoned polluted commercial site — at a time, how does it set priorities, given the constraints of other fiscal and legal obligations? This raises a general discussion question for the political scientists out there: how does a democratically responsive government body make public decisions that balance current crises and demands against long-term goals and needs? Constructive suggestions are welcome.

Michael Wise
Great Barrington