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Dozens of bridges are categorized as deficient

'We really cant postpone action much longer'

September 02, 2010
Although the ailing economy has sparked a lot of political dispute, one thing on which liberals and conservatives often seem to agree is that many of today's unemployed could be usefully occupied fixing the nation's aging infrastructure.

One key need is bridgework: Federal Department of Transportation data shows that almost a quarter of American bridges are either "functionally obsolete" or, worse, "structurally deficient." Our part of the Bay State is dotted with dozens of each group; in several towns, more than half of the bridges are so defined according to the National Bridge Inventory at www.nationalbridges.com. Among them are Auburn (25 of 42), Douglas (five of 7), Dudley (nine of 14), Oxford (20 of 34) and Sturbridge (22 of 34); Southbridge's tally falls just short of half, at 46.7 percent.

Those high ratios can, however, be deceptive, because a bridge categorized either way is not necessarily dangerous to use or in bad physical condition (especially in the "obsolete" designation). According to www.fwha.dot.gov, "it typically has an older design that lacks modern safety features such as adequate shoulder space, an appropriate railing system, or other features. Strict observance of signs limiting traffic or speed on the bridge will provide adequate safeguards."

Exactly what that means can be confusing. Locally, a good example is Southbridge's Route 131 bridge over the Quinebaug River. Although the NBI rates that as being "Somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is" and scores it either 84.6 or 85.2 (the website gives both figures, without explanation), the state downgraded its weight capacity last year, forcing trucks to detour down Pleasant and River streets.

To interim DPW Director Hamer Clarke, that confusion shows "they don't know how to rate it."

See Thursday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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