EDITORIAL: Roads and bridges, oh my!

WHAT ARE THE FIRST words that come to mind when an elected official says “infrastructure”? If it’s not “roads and bridges,” you might want to check your pulse.

Earlier this year President Biden proposed $3 trillion for infrastructure. That broadened the definition to “roads and bridges… and the other stuff we need.” It sounds almost too good to be true. It was also too much spending to win support in Congress. But that was part of the plan.

More recently the president has said he could sign a bill for a mere $1.3 trillion. And now he has given Republicans in the Senate one week to cut a deal or he will push through a law that funds the Democrats’ priorities.

We could use some of the funding for “other stuff” around here, but let’s focus on bridges because, no matter what else, the law would fund safer bridges. The president says his plan “will repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges…” nationwide. I don’t know whether the two short spans I have in mind are on that list. But they should be.

Both bridges are in the Town of Stuyvesant and I first learned of them in 2007, when I was editor of a Columbia County newspaper called The Independent and I assigned contributor Bob Green to interview a retired engineer and academic named Robert W. Clark. Prof. Clark was alarmed at the condition of a bridge on Schoolhouse Road that carried cars and trucks over the CSX railroad tracks. The other was a short span taking CSX tracks over Ridge Road just off Route 9J.

Both bridges were in very bad shape. That’s probably not a precise engineering term, but it was easy to see that the sides of the Schoolhouse Road bridge had completely rusted. Sunlight passed through long holes in the steel walls. The rusting of structural beams below the deck was worse. Oil trucks and school buses regularly crossed that bridge.

In early 2008, a few days after The Independent published one of Bob Green’s stories and an editorial, the state closed the Schoolhouse Road bridge. Concrete slabs on either end now block cars or trucks. But the bridge has not been repaired or removed, and freight trains still pass beneath it.

The Ridge Road overpass, built in 1924, remains open. It is owned by CSX. Prof. Clark has photos showing critical steel supports that are rusted through. He wonders how, if that bridge collapses, freight trains would reach the railroad bridge over the Hudson River.

Prof. Clark recently asked the Stuyvesant Town Board to put pressure on CSX to replace the Ridge Road overpass. It’s not an unreasonable request. The railroad company has built two new vehicle overpasses in the last decade or so, one in East Chatham and one in Chatham Center.

Recently we’ve seen what happens when infrastructure breaks down; whether it’s gasoline distribution system disrupted by hackers or cracks an interstate highway bridge over the Mississippi River that halted barge traffic on one of the nation’s busiest waterways. The pandemic has exposed the limits of our supply chains and the infrastructure that makes them work. It’s time we invested our wealth in improving the nation’s infrastructure—the big projects and the little ones.

The Stuyvesant Town Board should heed Mr. Clark’s advice. Start by seeking information about the most current information on each of the bridges and what steps, if any, are being taken to remove and replace them.

There may soon be funds to do this. The town and the county may be eligible. Other municipalities should plan for infrastructure funding as well. The president is serious about roads and bridges as well as other types of structural improvements where they’re needed. Local government should be too.

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