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It’s Not That Simple: Coming apart at the seams?

Why are our bridges failing? Whose fault is it and why is nothing done until it’s too late? Not surprisingly, part of the problem is money. It costs $4-5 million to replace a bridge so it isn’t something the town takes lightly.

 If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen today at 9:05 a.m. or listen to the podcast here.) We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?”  We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

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Is Great Barrington coming apart at the seams? It feels like it. The Division Street and Cottage Street bridges are closed. Part of West Sheffield Road is about to be made one lane because of a weak embankment. Lake Mansfield Road looks like a war zone. The front steps of Town Hall are crumbling. Why doesn’t Great Barrington take care of its infrastructure? Why do we wait until a bridge has to be closed before we fix it? Why does it take so long to fix once it is closed? Why is this happening in Great Barrington?

It’s not that simple.

This situation is not unique to Great Barrington or to the Berkshires. All over the country cities and towns are dealing with failing infrastructure. But where exactly is Great Barrington with regard to preserving it most precious assets and whose job is it to make sure the bridges don’t fall down?

On today’s program we welcome Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent, Sean VanDeusen, to discuss Great Barrington’s infrastructure: past, present and future. (This is a very brief summary of a much fuller discussion. Listen to the entire show on WSBS here.)

DPW is charged with oversight of the physical infrastructure of the town: roads, bridges, the wastewater treatment facility, storm water systems, cemeteries, and the town owned public buildings such as the police station, libraries and Town Hall. Sean’s office is responsible for most of the structures that allow the town to function for all of us but that we often take for granted…until they stop working!

Before we look at what’s wrong and what needs help, we should acknowledge that it’s not all gloom and doom. Because of the work of VanDeusen and his crew, for the most part the town runs smoothly. Buildings are clean and well maintained, roads are plowed, parks are neat, and when you flush the toilet, that’s generally the last you’ll see of whatever you just flushed. (Too graphic? Sorry.)

Recently, DPW completed an upgrade of Railroad, Bridge, Elm, Cottage, and School streets largely paid for with state funds thanks to a MassWorks grant the department helped secure. Also in the works is an $8 million project along South Main Street, made possible by Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funds, also from the State, that will repave and create sidewalks and bike lanes along that stretch of Route 7. It will connect pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars from as far south as the Senior Center to the Guido’s/Big Y shopping center and all the way to downtown where the Main Street Reconstruction ended. Rebuilding Route 183 and 41 (North Plain Road) is also in the works with grants already submitted. DPW does a lot more than clear the snow.

Rebuilding roads and sidewalks may not sound like much but it is expensive and difficult to coordinate. What makes these projects fun for DPW is that they not only rebuild, but generally get to redesign, especially roads and pedestrian ways, for inclusivity and a variety of transportation options. Among Sean’s favorite techniques is the “Road Diet” which he describes as giving back to cyclists and pedestrians what the automobile has taken away: space along our transportation routes. Most roads are inefficiently built leaving great spaces, such as the middle lanes on Stockbridge Road, which create “no man’s lands” and encourage increased driving speeds. These spaces can be redesigned to give that space back to pedestrians and cyclists, slowing down traffic and making roads safer for everyone including drivers. These dangerous situations are particularly present along Stockbridge Road near the Holiday Inn and Barrington Brewery. Issues of pedestrian and bicycling safety have been addressed by the town in its adoption of Complete Streets, a policy which places safety as top criteria when redesigning a road. DPW encourages Mass DOT to adopt the policy when it works on the state-controlled roads that run through our town.

Okay, that’s enough praise. Why are our bridges failing? Whose fault is it and why is nothing done until it’s too late? Not surprisingly, part of the problem is money. It costs $4-5 million to replace a bridge so it isn’t something the town takes lightly. It also takes a year or so for design, engineering and permitting. Then there’s the question of whose job it is.

Some bridges are the responsibility of the Mass Department of Transportation (DOT) and some are the town’s responsibility. If a bridge is on a state controlled way, DOT is more than likely responsible for its upkeep. When DOT identified deficiencies in the Park Street bridge associated with its original design it decided to replace it. Great Barrington had nothing to do with its supervision or the decision to replace it.

So one might expect that bridges on local roads, like Bridge Street, Division Street and Cottage Street, are the responsibility of the town.  It’s Not That Simple.

Despite it being on a local road, the DOT pitched in most to the cost of replacing the Bridge Street bridge. Great Barrington contributed around $1 million to the project. One might also expect that town bridges such as Cottage and Division, both recently closed, are the responsibility of Great Barrington since they are also on local roads. Well, thanks to DOT, It’s Not That Simple.

Cottage Street bridge, awaiting repairs.

In the case of Cottage Street, Boston told the town a year ago that they would pay to replace the bridge with TIP funds in five years. That was great news, especially since we hadn’t even applied for the funds. But then, by surprise, inspectors decided the bridge was unsafe and ordered it closed to all traffic immediately. Although we asked, they will not expedite the replacement funds; there are 350 other cities and towns in Massachusetts also waiting for TIP funds.

A corroded stringer on the Cottage Street bridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

That means the town had a choice to make: spend $500,000 or so to repair a bridge that will be replaced in 4 years, or live with a closed bridge. Further complicating the decision, the funds were granted because the bridge is in bad shape. If we repair it, we risk losing the replacement funds because the bridge will no longer pose a safety threat. Closing the bridge for 4 years is the price to pay to save the town the cost of replacement which could be in excess of $5 million. The difficult decision taken by DPW and the selectboard to allow the closure keeps the TIP money in the pipeline.

Are we letting DPW off the hook? Shouldn’t they know when bridges are getting compromised? Anyone who stood on the Division Street bridge should have known it needed attention.  As it turns out, DPW was aware that the Division Street bridge was nearing the end of its life so the selectboard and DPW made it a high priority.  Sean asked Town Meeting for the authority to borrow money to rebuild it. The process of replacing the Division Street bridge had begun, but the State’s engineers deemed it unsafe and ordered it closed before the town got a chance to fix it.

So, what now? Why does it take so long to fix a bridge when it only took three years to build the World Trade Center? Again, It’s Not That Simple.

First comes an Alternatives Analysis to decide what the best practice is for its eventual replacement, be it moving the bridge, a temporary bridge or its complete replacement. To decide between those options requires engineering and cost estimating for each option. Then, any work will require Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) review since the work will take place over a waterway, a process that could take up to 18 months. Since the existing bridge is covered in lead paint which could flake into the Housatonic River, it must be removed before demolition, adding significant cost to the project. DEP would also have jurisdiction over that abatement. Then there is Chapter 85 Review which is a review by DOT of a proposal submitted by the town for the bridge’s replacement, an extra review which can take as much as one year! Bidding and negotiations will follow all the necessary permitting which could take upwards of three months before contracts are issued, leaving another two months for review before contracts are signed. All things being equal, it could be five years before work is completed once the process has started. (To be fair, the three years to build the World Trade Center didn’t include demolition, design, engineering or permitting.)

The Division Street bridge, a crucial link to the west side of Great Barrington, closed this summer.

Bridge replacement — It’s Not That Simple. In fact, it’s damn complicated! Strategies for fixing or replacing any type of infrastructure, whether it involves sewage treatment or bridges, can get very expensive very quickly, so it is very important that decisions be made prudently despite the delay that may entail. Long term thinking is required.

Great Barrington is not unlike most other towns and cities across the U.S. that are in need of basic infrastructural upgrades. None of us want our taxes to go up. Despite the high taxes paid in Great Barrington, or because of them, maintenance has often been deferred to avoid even higher taxes. Town Meeting may not make extra funds available to provide for the routine required maintenance necessary to keep the town’s assets sound.

The Division and Cottage Street bridges are just two of the many infrastructure upgrades the town requires. In the near future Great Barrington will have plenty to do such as replacing the pumping stations at the wastewater treatment facility ($15 to $20 million), several stream crossings and culverts ($450,000 each), significant road repairs and work on town-owned buildings to name just a few of the 40 to 50 projects on VanDeusen’s desk. DPW is working on a daily basis to provide the Selectboard and the Finance Committee with a preventative maintenance plan that extends 10 to 20 years which can be used for determining fiscal impacts, setting priorities and securing financing before breakdown.

We invite you to tune into the show through the link provided with this column to hear many more details of the projects we mention above and some not mentioned.

As always, we would like to hear your perspectives on this and any of the other topics we have covered and we welcome your suggestions for future program topics. Please write us at or leave a comment below and we will be happy to continue the discussion.


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