Crumbling Bridges, Constructive Budgets

EACH day more than 1 million New Yorkers cross the East River in and out of Manhattan on four city-run bridges. Most trips are delayed. All four bridges are undergoing some degree of repair. Two have been under repair for a decade. In theory cracks and other potential problems in exposed structures like bridges should be much easier to spot than those in the subterranean pipes and lines that undergird any city.

Yet that fact assumes not just frequent inspections, now required by federal law, but a well-financed maintenance and repair schedule. ``What you do after inspection is also important,'' stresses Michel Ghosn, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York.

New York City concedes that well over half of its 842 bridges need major repair. ``They've been neglected for years,'' says New York City Transportation Department spokesman Joe DePlasco.

The four East River bridges that now have priority on the city's repair schedule all ``came due at once,'' says Ed Dauenheimer, a professor of civil engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. ``There's no question but that we're paying the price for lack of maintenance. It's been a low-priority item politically everywhere for the last 30 years or more. New York City is the classic example.''

The city will spend $1 billion over the next decade to repair the East River bridges. Significantly, $61 million of the total has been taken from street reconstruction funds.

New York City's experience underscores a point frequently made by engineers and public works experts that any structure's lifetime - rather than just initial design and building costs - should be weighed from the start.

Student engineers can also benefit from that approach, says Sue McNeil, an associate professor of civil engineering at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. ``They're much more trained toward design and building than repairing and replacing,'' she says.

Yet Professor McNeil says she thinks city governments now are much more focused on the importance of getting money for maintenance.

Just last year engineers from universities in the New York City area said in a report that the city could save $250 million a year in emergency repair and reconstruction costs by spending $36 million a year to maintain its bridges.

Part of the current shift in attitude stems from sharp cutbacks in federal and state grants to cities largely targeted for new infrastructure projects.

``Now we don't have the funds to build new things, so the emphasis is on catching up with maintenance,'' says Harold Smith, a past president of the American Public Works Association and the city engineer of Des Moines, Iowa. ``Cities are doing a much better job of inventorying and setting priorities on maintenance needs.''

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