NEW YORK – We have a problem: We have bridges, and we can’t afford them.
In some of our towns — Wawarsing, Rochester, Marbletown — there are bridges either being closed or under threat of closure. When we cross a bridge, do we ever think about the cost of keeping that bridge, or repairing it? Probably not. We just keep singing along to the radio, and hope the bridge will be there tomorrow.
However, we should care. When a bridge closes, you may just face an inconvenience, or you may face a catastrophe. If the alternate route to your home adds several miles of driving, your home’s value will probably decline.
A lot of our bridges are old and ill-maintained. It’s a prevalent issue in our part of the country because we salt our roads. Steel bridges — especially older ones — need to be maintained, and the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find the money for it. Everyone wants to build a fancy new bridge and put their name on it. Routine maintenance isn’t sexy. After a while, as a local highway superintendent has said, "You can put your hand right through them."
This topic comes up because Wawarsing has had to close the Port Ben bridge, leaving some homes on the eastern side with a detour via Foordmore Road. Over the past fifteen years or so, Wawarsing has closed as many as five bridges, so this is not a new problem.
Downstream, in the middle of the Rondout Valley, the Town of Rochester also has bridges with "yellow flags" denoting a degree of decay, on Whitfield and Boice Mill Roads. In Marbletown, the Mill Dam Road bridge was closed for repair, but will open any day now.
Statewide, the story is similar. New York has more than 17,000 bridges, 44% of them belong to the Department of Transportation, and about 50% belong to municipalities. (The remainder are the responsibility of the State Thruway Authority and state park commissions.)
A report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli showed that at least $7 billion would be needed to repair the state’s bridges outside New York City, which has its own mega-bridge problems.
At the municipal level, it slams into the issue of local taxes. We exist in a regime now governed by the so-called "2% tax cap." Actually, it is two percent OR the Consumer Price Index for the year, whichever is lower. And lately, the CPI has been lower. So, yay, great news, property taxes have been held down.
But, when a bridge, like the one to Port Ben, needs to be replaced, it might cost a million dollars or more. Towns with annual budgets between $3 million and $11 million simply cannot find $1 million extra and squeeze under the tax cap, any more than a woodchuck can get into a mouse hole.
School districts also operate under the tax cap, but when it comes to Capital Projects, like new roofs and building repairs, school districts can go outside the tax cap, issue a bond, raise the necessary money and have it paid off over several years. This is how most financial entities in the modern world deal with things like, well, bridges that need repair.
But, municipalities cannot do this. They can go over the tax cap, but only with a vote to do so by a super majority of town board members, who have to fear that the voters will not understand the issue, or care about a bridge that they personally don’t use. And so, voting to go over the tax cap is electoral suicide.
Year by year, municipal governments have pulled rabbits out of the hat, finding funds from state development grants or other more obscure funding streams. As that has happened, so supervisors have warned that there would be a reckoning at some point, because costs rise faster than taxes are allowed to. The closure of bridges points to that reckoning.
Of course, our town governments appeal to state senators and even to the governor for funds and relief. And sometimes they will be heard. But, recall that there are 17,000 bridges in the state, and many of them are in dire need of repair and replacement. Careful budgeting only goes so far. Either we learn to do without some of our bridges, or the tax cap is lifted, or we learn to consolidate government services. Not a popular thought, but one that we have to ponder as we cross that bridge — because we’ve come to it.