December 2, 2011


Bridge work borrowing questioned

County spending too much, some say; officials: repairs are needed

BridgeBob Ellis/staff photographer
This culvert on Preble Road is scheduled to be replaced next year by the Cortland County Highway Department.

Staff Reporter

In light of the Legislature’s decision last month to spend about $30 million in bonding for bridge and culvert repairs over the next 40 years, some are questioning the merits of the costly move while other officials defend the choice.
Cortlandville Town Councilman Ron Rocco faults the Legislature for moving hastily on an expensive decision and one he thinks is unnecessary. Rocco pointed to the bridges that will be repaired, listed as structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration. He is not convinced all the structures need work.
The bonding proposal will repair bridge and culvert projects that are expected to total $17 million and the balance of the $30 million will cover the interest.
The plan calls for replacing Preble Road bridge in 2012, and McGraw-Marathon Road bridge and Taylor Valley Road bridge in 2013. Average daily traffic on these structures is about 503 vehicles for Preble Road, 514 vehicles for McGraw Marathon and 93 vehicles for Taylor Valley.
The Preble Road bridge has problems with things like guardrails and bridge railings not being up to standard but is not deemed unsafe, according to the national bridge database, which describes how bridges nationwide meet federal standards.
The Taylor Valley Road bridge in Truxton and the McGraw Marathon bridge in Marathon have unstable foundations, according to the website.
Highway Superintendent Don Chambers says all the bridges slated for repair are in critical need of it.
The state Department of Transportation assigns a “condition rating” ranging from 0 to 7, with 7 being the best.
All the bridges to be addressed are in the 2 to 3 range, Chambers said.
The three prioritized bridges rate about an average of 3.5.
Legislators Tom Hartnett (D-4th Ward), Susan Briggs (R-Cortlandville), Newell Willcox (R-Homer) and Gene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville) opposed the vote at the session Nov. 18 when the Legislature approved the bonding proposal.
Hartnett questions the move.
He wants instead to explore other options for repairing the structures.
“I think we need to slow down, start looking at everything and stop spending money,” Hartnett said.
He urged the Legislature to carefully consider the size and expense of the projects, saying, for example, some culverts may be oversized.
Hartnett said he would rather see bridges addressed on a case-by-case basis, raising the tax levy as needed, rather than 40 years of debt obligation.
But County Administrator Martin Murphy said that to address the deficiencies, the levy would have to be raised by $1 million yearly over the next 10 years.
“For us to raise the tax levy $1 million in each of the next 10 years just isn’t practical and it is an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer,” Murphy said.
He called borrowing the money the “lesser of two evils.”
Paying off the debt will only be adding about one-third of a percentage point to the tax levy yearly, he said. When payments on the bonding peak, the total tax levy impact would be about 4 percentage points for the year.
Debt payments would start in 2013 when the county would pay $101,000, a cost that would increase by about $100,000 annually for 10 years.
Then payments would hold steady at a little over $1 million annually until year 2022, the 10th year, when payments would start to decline.
Under the payment plan, the county would borrow about $1.6 million annually except in 2013 when $2.6 million would be borrowed to include funding for the Little York Dam replacement.
Hartnett thinks the dam should not have been included in the proposal. He and Briggs advocated for Little York Lake residents to shoulder the burden, perhaps in the form of a special tax district.
Construction is expected to start in 2012.
The bridges and culverts would be repaired within 10 years, according to the plan.
The county’s total indebtedness now is about $20 million, excluding the bridge and culvert project. Considering this latest bonding plan, Murphy said the county will reach its peak of indebtedness in 2017, when it will owe almost $26 million, well below its debt limit of about $130 million.
Chambers said the borrowing and repairs are necessary. If the problems are not addressed, bridge closures would result, he said, adversely impacting transportation within the county.
The county receives state Consolidated Highway Improvement Program money annually but that is designated for new construction, not maintenance or repair, said Murphy.
Between that and the economic troubles of recent years, no funding has been allotted for routine maintenance of structures, resulting in the disrepair.
Since 2004, the Legislature has not funded the needs reported annually in the capital improvement plan, Chambers said.
Willcox said the most seriously damaged bridges should be funded one at a time, bidding the projects to contractors in the hopes of awarding projects locally. Willcox wants to change the state’s prevailing wage law, which forces the county to pay a contractor prevailing wages for the work.
“I believe instead of hiring one person at prevailing wage at $60 an hour, I would rather hire three people at $20 an hour,” Willcox said.


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