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Emergency Closures Underscore Need to Fix, Replace NJ’s Bridges

Hundreds of crumbling spans are obsolete or structurally unsafe – but needed upgrades will cost billions of dollars

Move the map and zoom in, or search for a road name, to find individual bridges. Due to data reporting issues, some bridge locations are not exact.

The recent closure of at least some lanes on three New Jersey bridges has turned attention once again to the condition of the state's transportation infrastructure and the question of how to pay for repairs when the Transportation Trust Fund runs out of money June 30.

The 2014 National Bridge Inventory shows a lot of the state's bridges need work: About 35 percent of New Jersey’s more than 6,600 bridges were rated either functionally obsolete -- meaning they may be too narrow, don't have shoulders or otherwise don't meet current standards -- or structurally deficient. The latter group of 621 bridges, accounting for nearly 1 in 10 statewide, has at least one problem in its deck, substructure or superstructure that needs repair.

Among those deemed structurally deficient are the two recently closed bridges and a third bridge where state officials shut one lane.

The superstructure of the Amwell Road bridge over the Delaware and Raritan Canal in Franklin Township, Somerset County was rated poor in an inspection last March, the NBI shows. The span scored a sufficiency rating -- an overall grade of fitness based on a number of scores that include structural and functional evaluations and how necessary it is to the public -- of 7 out of 100.

A sufficiency rating of 50 out of 100 makes a bridge eligible for federal funds for its replacement.

Video shot by state Department of Transportation inspectors just prior to closing the bridge last Friday showed the underside of the bridge, whose weight limit had been reduced to 14 tons, sagging as trucks weighing as much as 40 tons crossed it.

The Prospect Street bridge over NJ Transit tracks in Dover in Morris County, closed around Thanksgiving, got a poor ratin for its superstructure and fair ratings for its deck and substructure. Its sufficiency score was 34.

The Route 3 East bridge over the Hackensack River and Meadowlands Parkway near the NJ Turnpike entrance was also deemed structurally deficient, with a score of 45, according to the NBI. Its deck was rated poor and its superstructure rated fair. The state closed its right lane yesterday for two weeks to repair two "much larger than anticipated" cracks on that side of the bridge, said DOT spokesman Stephen Schapiro. A 2013 traffic survey found it carries 82,500 vehicles on average each day; its closing led to significant traffic backups.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who represents the area at the intersection of Hudson and Bergen counties where the Route 3 bridge is located, said the problems emphasize the pressing need to create a funding source for the TTF, which has been the source of most of the money used for road and bridge construction since its creation 30 years ago.

"The Route 3 Bridge is not the first piece of our crumbling infrastructure to fail, and if our state doesn't do something about our transportation funding crisis soon, then it certainly won't be the last," said Prieto (D-Hudson/Bergen). "The costs of lost productivity and aggravation for drivers over the next few weeks while emergency repairs are being conducted is the price our state is paying for its inability to solve this problem. I am hopeful that the bridge closure will at least emphasize to everyone that providing reliable transportation funding is vital for our economic interests and must be accomplished in the near future."

DOT Commissioner Jamie Fox, who has been charged with helping find a funding solution, acknowledged the hassles that closures create. In announcing that the state was shutting the Amwell Road bridge, Fox said, "I never want to close a bridge. It is a serious inconvenience but safety has to come first ... Our only option now is to close the bridge to avert a potential disaster."

Under Fox's order, DOT workers are in the process of inspecting some 300 structurally deficient bridges that the state owns or maintains. Schapiro said the commissioner ordered the reviews as a result of the bridge closures and the collapse earlier this week of a bridge in Ohio.

The current state of the bridges is the result of a combination of factors, according to Schapiro: New Jersey's infrastructure is older, it is a corridor state with a high volume of truck traffic, and there's significant traffic congestion. He said state’s changeable weather takes a toll, too.

The NBI data includes 93 bridges in New Jersey that got a rating of serious, critical or failed on deck, substructure or superstructure, or more than one of those features. Repairing or replacing those bridges would be costly. Not every bridge in the inventory includes a construction cost, but the total for those that do is more than $6.4 billion – and that figure may now be much higher, since some of the estimates are several years old.

What’s more, that cost is just to fix or replace those dangerous bridges. Advocates say the state also needs to raise $800 million to $1.1 billion annually to fund a capital program of between $1.6 billion and $2 billion each year.

As of July 1, the TTF -- funded predominantly by a gas tax, a petroleum products gross receipts tax and a portion of the sales tax -- will have to pay more in debt service than the $1.2 billion it takes in. That would be a double whammy, as there would not be state funds to pay for transportation projects and the state would lose matching federal funds, as well.

Schapiro said talks are continuing "at the highest levels," including the governor's office, the Legislature and Fox himself, to hammer out a compromise on funding the trust fund, though when that will happen is unclear.

"The commissioner is confident something will get done, it's just a matter of getting everyone on the same page," Schapiro said. "The big thing is to have a dedicated revenue stream for transportation projects. This is something government needs to do."

Among the sticking points: Gov. Chris Christie, seen as almost certain to be a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, has opposed raising New Jersey's 10.5-cent gas tax in the past. If he agreed to a tax hike now, it likely would not play well with the Tea Party and some conservative Republicans.

And New Jerseyans aren't keen on the idea either -- the most recent survey, by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll, found more than two-thirds opposing the tax and little more than a quarter in favor.

"New Jersey residents see the need for road repairs, but they want policymakers to find the revenue somewhere else, rather than their overtaxed wallets," said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor and poll director, in releasing the results Monday.

The conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity cited that poll in urging legislators to listen to state residents.

"The vast majority of New Jerseyans are fed up with high taxes and do not want to see the gas tax hiked," said Mike Proto, an AFP spokesman. "AFP stands with them and has been the only voice looking out for our residents who will be hurt by this ... If lawmakers were on the ground talking to people like we are, they’d be tabling this gas tax hike.

“Consumers in New Jersey and across the country are getting a break from high gas prices and that’s helped put more money in their pockets and spark the best economic growth we’ve seen in years," Proto continued. "But now politicians are trying to exploit the fall in gas prices to impose higher gas taxes and throw cold water on the recovery."

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