If Erie Canal is a necklace that streams across Upstate New York, then some of the bridges that cross it are the engineering equivalent of tarnished, junk jewelry.
The aging spans, many over 100-years-old are deteriorating. The steel I-beams are rusting. The cement is crumbling. Several are closed.
This, as the state Canal Corporation prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the start of construction for the Erie Canal.
Ed Morgan is certainly not in a celebratory mood.
“It’s a big issue as far as the daily lives of our community members here.”
Morgan is the highway supervisor in the Orleans County town of Murray, which includes the village of Holly. Town population is about 5,000.
Murray also has two of the worst-rated bridges in the eight counties of Western New York.
The bridge crossing the canal on Hindsburg Road is closed. Morgan says it’s been shut down for years.
Someone tagged a cement support column on the north side of the bridge with “Welcome to Zombie Bridge”.
A portion of north approach ramp is gone. Decay is deeply rooted in the span. And on occasion, pieces fall off.
“Part of the structure is continuing to rust and drop pieces of rusted steel into the canal, possibly on to boats as they go underneath or the walk path that they’ve put millions of dollars into,” says Morgan.
Over on the east side of town is the Bennett Corners Road bridge. The condition of the bridge has degraded to the point that the post weight limit down to just 4-tons.
A look underneath tells the story. I-beams supporting the deck (where vehicles travel) are caked with rust. In numerous spots, the rust has eaten holes on the beams.
Also, one of the four support columns has a hole at the bottom of it, a foot and half deep.
The shabby shape of the bridge has functionally closed it to anything larger than a passenger vehicle.
“(Can’t use it) for emergency vehicles, for school buses, for transportation, for farm equipment,” says Murray.
On the day 2 On-Your-Side visited, we watched as a Holley School Bus was forced to make a now-routine U-turn at the south end of the Bennetts Corners Bridge to avoid using the weakened span.
The situation is also cost town government money. The Highway Department’s regular snow-plows, when fully loaded weight up to 25-tons, or 21-tons more than the Bennetts Corners bridge is now posted for.
Murray had to find a snow-removal solution, so he went out and bought a pick-up, and put the lightest plow blade he could find on it, just to service the area bridges.
“It costs us about $20-to-25 thousand to maintain this truck, to man it and to have another plow route specifically for the canal bridges,” says Murray.
So, who’s responsible for these bridges? The New York State Department of Transportation.
A review of the US Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory database found 51-bridges in western New York that grade out with a score of 40 or less in a “sufficiency rating”.
Jerome O’Connor, executive director of the University at Buffalo’s Institute of Bridge Engineering explains the rating is a measurement tool.
“That’s a number that the federal government develops and uses. It provides a way to rank the bridges.”
Scores go from 0 to 100. The lower the score the greater the need for repair and maintenance.SEARCH THE DATABASE:
Sorting through the data, 2 On-Your-Side found the largest concentration of bridges with the lowest grades are ones crossing the Erie Canal and owned by DOT. Seven of them in total, four in Orleans County, two in Niagara County, one in Erie County. (See our list of WNY’s worst bridges below.)
No-one with the agency was made available to answer questions about these bridges. Despite multiple requests made by phone and by email over several weeks, all 2 On-Your-Side was provided was these two sentences:
“Safety is the DOT's highest priority which is why we are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade our bridge infrastructure and aggressively and regularly inspect all crossings. If a bridge in New York State is open to traffic, it is safe.”
But what is being spent to repair, replace or remove these decaying bridges crossing the Erie Canal?
In the most recent state budget, State Senator Robert Ortt says, “We did get $10-million set aside in the D-O-T budget specifically for canal bridges.”
Ortt’s district includes all of Niagara and Orleans counties and a portion of Monroe county. It also features much of the western-most end of the Erie Canal and the suspect bridges.
On the DOT’s current repair list is the Marshall Road Bridge in Medina and the Bennetts Corners Road bridge in Murray. Contracts for the work are scheduled to be awarded in March of 2018.
There is also work scheduled this construction season for the Knowlesville Road bridge in Ridgeway.
Ortt says it’s a start. There are many more bridges along the Erie Canal that Ortt says the DOT neglected for years.
“I think we’re certainly going to need more than $10-million.”
How much more? Ortt says he’s asked the DOT, but the agency has failed to supply any kind of estimate.”
Back in Murray, Ed Morgan is ticked. It’ll be at least another year before the DOT starts work on patching-up one of its two crumbling Erie Canal bridges.
“We try to step up and do at our expense what maybe the state should be doing. That’s not right, but that’s the way it is.”
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Below is WGRZ's list of the 49 worst bridges in western New York based on it's "sufficiency rating". Federal and state used the rating to determine which bridges are in most need of repair. The lower the rating, the greater the need for repair. All of the bridges below scored 40 or less (out of 100).