KIYC: Years of neglect led to state’s failing bridge infrastructure, experts say

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New Jersey has hundreds of bridges across the state in urgent need of repair or replacement, and a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds it took years of neglect to get to this “State of Disrepair.”

The Monmouth Street Bridge in Trenton is in poor condition, and it didn’t get there overnight. For decades, bridge inspectors visited the bridge every two years, a Federal Highway Administration database shows they always reached the same conclusion: the bridge was “structurally deficient” and needed to be repaired or replaced. But it hasn’t happened. And it’s a similar story across New Jersey, where nearly 1 in 10 bridges are deficient, many for a long time.

Steve Shapiro, spokesman for the New Jersey DOT, insists that New Jersey bridges are “in good shape, especially compared to other states.”

But in fact, New Jersey, America’s third-wealthiest state, ranks 30th in the country in bridge deficiency. That’s better than New York and Pennsylvania but worse than other nearby states, including Maryland and Connecticut.  So how did we get here?

RELATED: KIYC: Almost 1 in 10 New Jersey bridges are structurally deficient
MORE: Map of structurally deficient bridges in New Jersey

“We live in a climate that is very challenging for bridges,” Shapiro offers. “You have a lot of heavy trucks on our highways, so that takes a toll.”

But experts also point to another factor: years of neglect. 

Back in the 1980s, New Jersey started a Transportation Trust Fund, intended to be a permanent source of funding for road and bridge improvements. But like a college student with a new credit card, political leaders of both parties borrowed against the fund until, by 2011, most of it was needed just to pay the interest on money that had already been borrowed. 

“From about 2011 until the time the Transportation Trust Fund was re-enacted, there was inadequate money allocated to transportation, rehabilitation of bridges, fixing of pavement, and all the other things that are needed for the transportation system,” says Martin Robins, who has 30 years of experience in transportation policy and planning, and is founding director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

Even with the TTF nearly dry, then-Gov. Chris Christie refused to admit there was a problem for five years, until he suddenly announced in 2016 that the fund was broke. For four months, until state lawmakers passed a massive gas tax increase, most transportation work statewide ground to a halt. 

“We’re still feeling the results of that very unfortunate development,” Robins says. “To me, that was government malpractice at the highest level.”

The gas tax increase sent money back into the pipeline, and this year state lawmakers increased transportation funding. But experts say it will take a while for the impact to be felt. In the meantime, New Jersey’s already aging infrastructure got that much older. The average New Jersey bridge is now 54 years old.

“These bridges have lived their useful lives and they haven’t been treated like queens, which they should have been, and so they are now, shall we say, geriatric structures,” opines Professor E. Amin Aktan, professor of infrastructure at Drexel University.

While the NJDOT insists its inspectors have everything under control, transportation officials are notably unwilling to share inspection reports with the public. Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, Kane In Your Corner requested inspection reports for three bridges: the Monmouth Street Bridge in Trenton, the Landing Lane Bridge in New Brunswick and the Perth Amboy Connector Bridge in Perth Amboy.  The NJDOT denied the request, saying, “New Jersey’s bridges and tunnels must be protected at all times… and these documents are important to their security.”

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government believes the NJDOT is violating the law. “I think it’s unreasonable that they’re withholding the entire record,” says Water Luers, an attorney with NJFOG. “If there’s a genuine security concern, they should redact that specific information.”

Other agencies make bridge inspections public. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey provided inspection reports for the George Washington Bridge, although it did redact a few pages. And when Kane In Your Corner asked the Connecticut Department of Transportation for inspection reports, officials there sent complete documents, including pictures. Only New Jersey sent nothing.

“The fact they’re withholding the reports in their entirety allows us to infer that there’s problems,” Luers says. “And that prevents us and the public from doing anything about it.”

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