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All have same design as collapsed Minneapolis bridge

Six WNY bridges rated in poor condition

Updated: 08/04/07 7:55 AM

The North Grand Island bridges currently are being inspected for structural integrity. The south spans were inspected in November.

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Six bridges in Western New York, including the four Grand Island bridges, share two unsettling characteristics with the Minnesota bridge that collapsed on Wednesday: They feature the same structural bridge design, and all are listed in poor condition by the Federal Highway Administration.


“If they do fail, the consequences can be catastrophic, like we saw in Minnesota,” said Jerome O’Connor, senior program officer for transportation research at the University at Buffalo.

On a scale of 1 to 9, the four Grand Island bridges each ranked slightly below a 4, meaning the bridges have suffered from material loss, deterioration, concrete damage or underwater foundation problems.

Though not considered near danger of collapse or being closed, the heavily traveled bridges will require tens of millions of dollars in repair work. Serious bridge reconstruction would affect the 71,000 vehicles that cross the South Grand Island bridges daily, as well as 57,000 vehicles on the north bridges.

Two other bridges, on Route 219 over Cattaraugus Creek, and on Ward Drive over Big Gulf Creek in Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park, are ranked slightly above 4 and are awaiting repair by the state and county.

Because the bridges do not rank a 3 or lower — in serious or critical condition — they are not listed among the 62 “structurally deficient” bridges in Western New York, even though they require extensive repair.

Five percent of bridges in Erie and Niagara counties are considered structurally deficient, a lower percentage than Monroe and Onondaga counties, or the state average, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

But the six bridges feature a similar deck truss design as the collapsed Minnesota bridge. The primary support for the bridges comes from below. The bridge deck, or roadway, sits on top of the main bridge structure, instead of within it, like a cable bridge.

“Deck trusses are not an intrinsically bad design,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of them out there, and they’ve served very well.”

But these types of bridges do not possess the same level of redundant, or fail-safe, systems as other newer bridges. That means if one key structural component of the bridge were to fail, the entire bridge could collapse.

“Those are the ones, like the governor is suggesting, you need to take extra precautions with, just to be on the safe side,” O’Connor said.

Tom Pericak, acting division director for the state Thruway Authority’s Buffalo Division, pointed out that having a deck truss design does not automatically make a bridge more prone to failure.

He noted that the last major catastrophe in New York State was the collapse of the Thruway bridge over Schoharie Creek, northwest of Albany, 20 years ago, killing 10 people. That bridge had a steel girder construction but failed because of erosion of its underwater foundation.

He said the Grand Island bridges receive a thorough inspection every two years, and an interim inspection in the odd years that focuses on critical bridge points. He said they are in “serviceable condition.”

The South Grand Island bridges, which feature both a deck truss and through truss, were inspected in November. The North Grand Island bridges have been under inspection since June, authority spokeswoman Betsy Graham said.

Major repairs to all four bridges have either been completed in recent years or are currently under way.

Bridge experts say the overall risk to bridges in Western New York and across the state results from a persistent lack of government investment at a time when aging spans are carrying more traffic and heavier loads than they were designed for.

“If you can’t get across Buffalo to Grand Island or Canada, or you close down access to the Thruway — our highways are basically part of our interstate network — it’s going to have a major economic impact,” said Robert Paaswell, director of the University Transportation Research Center with the City College of New York and a former University at Buffalo professor.

The Thruway Authority has announced plans to invest another $62 million in Grand Island bridge projects over the next five years to keep the spans serviceable, though the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council has recommended a full replacement of the north and south bridges by 2030 because of increasing traffic volumes. A full bridge replacement would cost an estimated $500 million, Graham said.

The other two deck truss bridges in Western New York aren’t as high profile as the Grand Island bridges but will still be reinspected in the next 30 days by the state Department of Transportation, under orders of Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.

The Route 219 bridge, owned by the state, spans the picturesque Cattaraugus Creek and Zoar Valley gorge, and is familiar to thousands who have crossed it going to Ellicottville.

New York State is building two bridges just to the east of the current bridge as part of the 3.5-mile extension of the Route 219 expressway from Spring - ville to Ashford.

The sixth bridge is much smaller — a 51-foot seasonal bridge with a steel-grate deck on Ward Drive.

News Staff Reporter BarbaraO’Brien contributed to this report. stan@buffnews.com