December 2, 2021

Report says bridges in greater Cortland area now in better condition

Spanning the divide

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

A truck crosses Lorings Crossing bridge Thursday in Cortlandville. The state Department of Transportation red-flagged and closed the bridge for significant structural issues. However, it could accept one-lane traffic after a bridge consultant said the deterioration is mostly to the fascia. A $4.5 million project to return it to full use is expected in 2022.

David Weinstein has lived near the almost 140-year-old Freese Road bridge for more than 30 years. He has his heart set on seeing it rehabilitated.

“The town gets a lot of pride from this bridge,” he said. “It’s a bridge that welcomes you into the community.”

The bridge — flagged by the state for structural deficiencies — is at the entrance to the hamlet of Varna in the town of Dryden. Instead of rehabilitating the one-lane span, the state wants to move it and replace it with a two-lane bridge connecting a proposed housing complex to a major thoroughfare.

You drive over bridges every day, probably so often that you don’t even notice.

For years, as many as 40% of New York’s bridges were deficient in some way. Perhaps too narrow or outmoded, or not maintained well enough, or no longer strong enough for the type of traffic, or the traffic load. Some just weren’t safe enough to allow vehicles at all.

That’s changed. Less than 13% of the state’s bridges are deficient now, shows a report from the state Comptroller’s Office. And the picture is even better in the greater Cortland area, where state Department of Transportation data released under a Freedom of Information Law request show fewer than one bridge in 10 has any problem at all.

Better than state average

Freese Road is just one bridge in the greater Cortland County area that’s deficient. Mark Frechette of the DOT had insisted the bridge needs to be replaced because of safety concerns. The one-lane bridge now sees about 2,000 cars passing over it daily, five times more than the safe limit.

In the Groton, Dryden and Lansing area, six bridges are flagged in DOT records. Two bridges were listed as both red-flagged and yellow-flagged, but were counted only once.

“A red flag is used to indicate that a bridge component requires action by the owner of the bridge within six weeks,” said Curtis Jetter, a spokesman for the DOT. “A yellow flag is used to report a structural condition that could become an issue in two years.”

Nineteen bridges were flagged in Cortland County — one bridge had been listed twice in the records as having been red-flagged then yellow flagged.

“Bridges owned by New York’s local governments and authorities are more likely than stateowned bridges to be structurally deficient (12.8% compared to 9.0%),” states a 2017 reporter from the state Comptroller’s Office. “On the whole, the percentage of bridges classified as deficient has been declining in recent years.”

Jetter said there are 199 bridges in Cortland, meaning 9.5% of the county’s bridges are deficient in some way. Of those 19 deficient bridges, 11 are locally owned, eight are owned by the state.

He said Tompkins has 208 bridges, 7.2% of which are deficient.

Of those 15 deficient bridges, five are located in either Dryden, Groton or Lansing, but are the responsibility of Tompkins County; one is the responsibility of the state.

Bridge deficiencies

Cortland County

19 bridges listed as being flagged
2 bridges have an inactive red flag status
16 bridges are active yellow flags
1 bridge was red-flagged then set as a yellow flag

Dryden, Groton, Lansing in Tompkins County

5 bridges are listed as being flagged
2 bridges were red flagged then set as a yellow flag
3 were yellow-flagged

Source: state Department of Transportation

However, another set of DOT data from Jan. 31 shows only 193 bridges in Cortland and 196 in Tompkins. Jetter said Thursday the system they use to track bridges is being updated, meaning the percentages could slightly be off.

When determining how best to repair or replace a bridge, many things must be taken into account. Some of those things are seen every day by people like the ease of access bridges can provide. But some things like the historical significance of a bridge may not be as obvious.

Then there’s the cost of rehabilitating or building new, which can cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.

But for many people, like Weinstein repairing the bridge can be important in a community. In his case, he said the bridge is also part of the community’s history.

Significance of bridges

Freese road bridge, built in 1882 by the Groton Bridge Co. of Groton, is one of two two-span, pinconnected Pratt pony truss bridges left in America, said Weinstein, a staunch advocate for rehabilitating the bridge.

The town board advocates replacing the existing one-lane bridge with a slightly wider two-lane bridge; the existing bridge would be moved to another location, and possibly sold.

“If we don’t have any of these bridges around, then people, they don’t have a visual ability to examine, to look at the unique engineering design features built into bridges like this that make them able to function,” he said.

Weinstein, like other residents, is concerned about other aspects of the two-lane design like the possibility of increased traffic and people speeding down the bridge and Freese Road, which has a hairpin curve. The bridge is now yellow-flagged by the DOT.

Other bridges are essential secondary routes for emergency vehicles and local traffic like the Wall Street bridge in the village of Homer, which is the next best option for the Homer Fire Department to use to respond to emergencies on River Street if Albany Street bridge was inaccessible.

If Albany Street bridge becomes inaccessible, vehicles face a six-mile trip north or south to cross the Tioughnioga River. Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish said that would add several minutes to the department’s response. Both Pine Street bridge and Wall Street bridge were redflagged for structural issues by the state in 2018 and closed.

The town wanted to turn Wall Street into a two-lane bridge to accommodate emergency vehicles trying to get to River Street, but was not selected to receive state funding in 2018 for the $860,000 project.

Irish has said either the Pine Street bridge or Wall Street bridge needed to be upgraded to hold emergency vehicles. However, Pine Street was renovated to allow 5-ton vehicles, not enough to carry larger emergency vehicles, leaving the village with no backup bridge.

“Everything else weighs considerably more than 5 tons,” Irish said.

But what goes into determining the status of a bridge?

Determining bridge status

Cortland County Highway Superintendent Charlie Sudbrink said members of his department inspect county-owned bridges annually.

“Then the state also has their bridge inspection program,” Sudbrink said. “When they send us notice, we usually have an idea what bridges need to be addressed.”

During a state DOT inspection, a team led by a professional engineer will measure the bridge and evaluate all its components.

The team will look at the condition of the bridges, “ability to function, safety and maintenance items,” Jetter said. “They
also review previous inspection reports to understand how conditions have changed since the last inspection.”

After that, the bridge is flagged if needed. Jetter said bridges are often flagged for “deterioration, rust and corrosion of steel beams, reinforcing bars and bridge supports and broken concrete.”

“Deterioration can be caused by age, weather (rain, snow and ice), use of de-icing chemicals, and general wear and tear due to traffic,” he said.

Sudbrink said the county shuts down its bridges if inspectors find they’re not structurally sound, even before the DOT does its inspection.

Paying for repairs

Paying to repair or even rehabilitate a bridge isn’t cheap.

Sudbrink said the county asks the state for funds for five to seven bridge or box culvert projects each year through the New York Bridge program. It typically gets money for one or two.

The cost to fix the bridges varies. Lorings Crossing bridge in Cortlandville is expected to be a $4.5 million project, while East River Crossing in Homer is expected to cost $2.5 million and Blodgett Mills bridge, which was fixed in October, cost $1.2 million. But it’s about the only way the county can repair or rehabilitate any of its bridges, Sudbrink said.

The county’s share of state Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program funds can pay for bridge projects, too, but it’s also the money Sudbrink needs to replace equipment, repair roads and other priorities.

So the county must rely on funding from the bridge grant. “The state decides which ones it will fund,” Sudbrink said. “Unfortunately it’s not necessarily which needs it the most, it’s which the state feels it can fund.”

That means a bridge red flagged in the community may not get funding, while a yellow flagged bridge could.

“Twenty years ago, funding was a problem and it’s still the same,” Sudbrink said.

Cortland County got $11.8 million in 2020 and is getting $12.3 million for 2021, Jetter said. Tompkins County received $30.3 million for 2020 and will get around $13.4 million for 2021.

Of the grant, most is actually federal funding funneled through the state. The county has a 5% share for each of the grants it receives for bridges.

“Lorings Crossing is a $4 million project,” Sudbrink said. “The county can’t afford that project, so we depend on the state for the grant.”

Bringing all the bridges up to par in Cortland County would cost tens of millions of dollars, Sudbrink said.

“It’s not just Cortland County either, it’s all of upstate New York — all of upstate New York has issues with its infrastructure,” Sudbrink said.

Sometimes, the issue is safety; sometimes traffic changes, or technology or new safety features. Sometimes, as in the Freese Road bridge, the issue is history.

“Like any 133-year-old bridge you have to do periodic maintenance, but you fix them and you move on,” Weinstein said. “I think it’s worth the tradeoff to put in the little extra work to maintain this historical feature. The town gets a lot of pride from this bridge. It’s a bridge that welcomes you into the community.”