Lessons of Mianus River Bridge collapse not yet learned
Thirty years after a 100-foot piece of the Mianus River bridge fell into the water and shocked the state into setting aside funds for bridge repair and maintenance, Connecticut still struggles to find the money to perform the work.
Even though a new law that goes into effect in 2015 will prevent that money from being diverted, the number of bridges that need repairs is growing so fast that the state's 25-cents-per-gallon gas tax and another tax on petroleum product distributors may not be enough to cover the work that is needed. The state has $16 billion worth of unfunded transportation projects scheduled over the next 20 years,
"We can't take for granted the gas tax is going to cut it anymore," state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-29, said. "I don't want something bad to happen before we realize we need to do something to get the substantial revenue we need for our infrastructure."
On June 28, 1983, when the deck fell out of the Mianus River bridge, since renamed the Michael L. Morano Bridge, the Fairfield County section of Interstate 95 saw 90,000 vehicles pass through every day. Today it's more like 130,000 to 200,000.
The accident happened at 1:30 a.m., or more people might have been killed or hurt. Two tractor-trailers and one car fell with the bridge deck, and another car drove off into the void. Three people died, and three others were seriously injured.
Truck and car traffic had to be detoured off I-95 into Greenwich and neighboring Port Chester, N.Y., creating a massive blockage in one of the nation's biggest arteries of commerce for months. A temporary span was established over the gaping hole in the bridge, allowing cars to go over, but trucks had to use U.S. Route 1 until the permanent repairs were made.
The disaster put a spotlight on Connecticut's neglected bridge maintenance when federal investigators found the state had delayed critical repairs to the rusted superstructure of the bridge because of a lack of funding.
After that, Gov. William A. O'Neill and state officials created the Special Transportation Fund to set aside money to maintain and repair the state's bridges. It is funded by a 25-cent gas tax and the petroleum products gross receipts tax.
The state has collected billions from these taxes. But frequently the fund is not used for bridge maintenance and repair. Just over 50 percent of it has gone to its intended use. The rest has paid for other projects or helped plug holes in the budget.
Even once the new law kicks in and money in the fund is preserved, there is another concern: The tax revenue representing the money for maintenance and repairs is expected to drop precipitously as new federal mileage standards push car makers to produce more efficient vehicles and people drive more hybrids and electric cars.
Yet the need for bridge repairs is growing fast. Last week, the Washington, D.C., group Transportation 4 America released a report that stating that more than 400 bridges in Connecticut are structurally deficient, including 100 bridges in Fairfield County.
The preferred options for increasing the Special Transportation Fund are raising taxes and bringing tolls back, both of which are political hot potatoes.
This week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporter that a new strategic planning effort will consider new revenue sources such as tolls to offset the expected crash in gas-tax revenue.
"You can put your head in the sand about that," Malloy said. "(That) is something a lot of people in politics, particularly Connecticut, like to do. They like to pretend something that is a year away is a century away."
Last winter, the state hired a consulting firm to study so-called value-pricing tolls, which would charge different prices based on the time of day a trip is taken, and their effectiveness in producing funding for transportation projects.
Connecticut has been down this road before.
Early in the last decade, the state's Transportation Strategy Board recommended raising the state's Motor Fuel Tax to 35 cents or higher, placing a half-penny surcharge on the state's sales tax and aggressively evaluating the reinstitution of tolls on state roads.
"We evaluated the eventual introduction of better mileage and hybrids and the need to identify new sources of revenue," said Oz Greibel, the chairman of the group. "The recommendations made some people irate."
Federal funding for repairing and maintaining interstate highways is facing a similar problem. The money in the Federal Highway Trust Fund is also supported by gas-tax revenue, and the money in it also is diverted to other projects.
"The federal picture is really murky going forward, and it's really unclear what Congress is going to do," said Steve Higashide, senior planner of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group which analyzes transportation issues in Connecticut.
All this is going on at a time when the need for better public transportation is growing, and public transit systems have shown they too are suffering from lack of maintenance and repairs. Most notably, the Metro-North derailment and crash last month highlighted the need for maintenance and repair on the area's rail system.
In light of these competing needs for upkeep of infrastructure, Malloy's decisions on how to spend the remaining money in the Special Transportation Fund, along with his decision to continue diverting funds out of it until the new law takes effect, have been questioned by some.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said Malloy's decision to back spending $112 million to build the New Britain-Hartford busway, and to a lesser extent the $880 million New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, are both questionable investments when weighed against the state's other maintenance and upgrade needs, especially for the Metro-North New Haven Line.
"My biggest question is why the state would continue to spend so much money on speculative projects when we can't even make sure what we have is safe," Lavielle said. "Safety is the highest priority, and we're having these problems with bridges, roads and rail on Metro-North, all three which have usage that is very high. Why aren't we addressing it?"
Connecticut Rail Commuter Council Chairman Jim Cameron said failing to designate all of the petroleum receipts tax to transportation needs over the past decade was in some sense a betrayal of the drivers who paid the tax expecting it would be used for infrastructure.
Cameron also said the state's gas taxes are better spent on $4.5 billion in needed repairs to the New Haven Line, including the replacement of four swing bridges between Greenwich and New Haven and other equipment in recognition of its economic importance.
Cameron said he takes at face value the state's assurances officials are in better control of safety problems than they were before the Mianus River bridge collapse, even as he worries about the economic toll of badly maintained infrastructure.
"We need to get over the idea that roads are free and accept that they need to be maintained," Cameron said. "The Legislature is going to have to do something because they are obviously not coming up with the billions that are needed."
One bright spot in all of this is that technology and engineering knowledge have advanced considerably, allowing the state to put off repairs to bridges that aren't an immediate risk to public safety, Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
Advances in monitoring equipment and analysis for potential trouble spots make the chances of a highway bridge collapse much less likely than they were in the early 1980s.
On bridges over water where rapid currents can erode concrete piers or other underwater parts of a bridge, the DOT uses a software program called Scourwatch, which evaluates current weather conditions such as rainfall and the flow of rivers to deploy inspectors to a list of spans that should be checked immediately to confirm that a bridge's condition is not worsening.
"In the 30 years since Mianus, a lot has been learned when it comes to the engineering field to understand how bridges age and how they deteriorate and what forces act upon them," Nursick said.
But that's little solace to Guerrera, who said that deferring projects might result in bigger and costlier fixes later on.
"We tend to fix things with Band-Aids rather than repairing them the right way, and we don't want when all is said in done for something terrible to happen and to ask, `Why didn't we do it the right way?' " Guerrera said.