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We really have to look harder than we have in the past at where we're gonna spend our money.

Bridge closure tells of "new normal" for region's infrastructure

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A bridge in the town of Wilna, east of Watertown in Jefferson County, was closed recently after a regular state inspection showed it was no longer safe for motorists. The bridge didn't get much traffic - fewer than 100 cars a day, according to the state Department of Transportation - but residents of the area will now have to get used to a five-mile detour. And, transportation officials said, closures like this one will likely be more common as the federal government reins in its budget for repairs. Joanna Richards has the story.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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The bridge that carries Selos Road over the west branch of Black Creek in the town of Wilna wasclosed on September 9 after a regular two-year inspection by state transportation officials found the 1939 structure had seriously deteriorated.

County Highway Superintendent James Lawrence Jr. says it was better to be safe than sorry:

"We always are proactive in what we do and the conditions of our bridges, knowing that it's always a money issue, how, what we can replace and what we can't, but we never get to the point where there would be a failure."

Lawrence says the bridge had actually lived out its expected lifespan.

Michael Flick, a spokesman for the DOT Region 7, says such closures will likely become more common as federal funding for repairs slows to a trickle:

"You know, 'a new normal' is probably not a bad turn of phrase for where we're at. We really have to look harder than we have in the past at where we're gonna spend our money."

The DOT Region 7 – which includes Clinton, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties – was expecting $11 million in federal funding this fiscal year, Flick said. The region received only $8 million. That money has a long way to stretch, since out of approximately 800 locally-owned bridges in the region eligible for those funds, about half are in need of some kind of repair. 

"There's no shortage of bridges that need to be fixed," said Flick.

Bridges that carry fewer than 2,000 vehicles per day are going to get a second look if they show up on county priority lists for repairs, Flick says. The trouble is, in a large rural area, many bridges have relatively low traffic. And while a five-mile detour may seem minor, for residents near a closed crossing, it can amount to a major headache – especially when it comes to emergency response times. That's why, as the DOT looks to prioritize projects, it will consider the length of detour routes as well as traffic counts as it makes decisions about where to use its shrinking funds.


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