Hens: County's bridges need immediate attention but the money's just not there
The federal government is letting counties such as Genesee down by failing to “bridge” a gap in funding necessary to prevent a collapse of its infrastructure, Highway Superintendent Tim Hens said on Monday.
Speaking at the Genesee County Legislature’s Public Service Committee meeting at the Old County Courthouse, Hens said most of the county’s large bridges are in desperate need of repair – a situation that seems to have fallen upon deaf ears in Washington.
“We have roughly 100 federal aid bridges and they all have design lives on them of 50 to 75 years,” Hens said, noting that the majority of these spans were built in the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. “All at the same time, we’re getting slammed with 40 to 50 bridges that need to be replaced and we’re only getting funded for one or two every other year. There’s no way we’re going to keep up.”
Hens said federal money used to come in to do two bridges a year, and then it decreased to one per year. It’s even less frequent now.
“It’s extremely frustrating … we have pushed very, very hard (for funding) all the way up to the president,” he said, adding that he’s uncertain of the status of a bill currently in the Senate.
Genesee County, as is the case with other municipalities across the state, is in the midst of a serious financial crunch due to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut things down in mid-March. The economy has started to recover, but sales tax revenue for the year is down and New York State has cut aid by 20 percent across the board.
Delays in federal funding for roads and bridges forced the county to have to pay “the full shot” (instead of the usual 5 percent) to replace a bridge on Stroh Road in Alexander, a cost of $1.8 million that was taken from the $7.5 million allocated for infrastructure after the sale of the county nursing home.
Hens said the county’s bridges are “getting worse,” advising that 48 of the 92 larger bridges (over 20 feet) are listed as deficient per state standards.
“Statewide, we are probably on the lower end of bridge conditions … and we’re definitely near the bottom of the list of counties in terms of the condition of our bridges,” he said.
Genesee County is responsible for all bridges in the county, an “an extra burden on us that most counties don’t have,” Hens said.
As he presented his departmental review, Hens said the large bridges showed nine “red flags” in 2020 – up from just two in 2019 – with two of those problems permanently corrected with the rehabilitation of bridges on Colby Road in Darien and McLernon Road in Bethany.
The county has 278 bridges of less than 20 feet, and 19 of the worst 30 have been replaced since 2016, including one this year.
Overall, keeping the roads up to snuff and performing preventative maintenance have become more challenging due to budget restraints and lack of funding, Hens said.
Along those lines, he said it is likely (pending negotiations with the employees’ union) that the county will switch to one-person snowplowing – instead of the usual two in the truck – to save money.
“The bottom line is that it seems like we keep kicking the can down the road relative to preventative maintenance and as anybody knows if you put off maintenance on your home, you’ll have bigger problems to deal with – and that’s where we’re headed with highways and bridges,” Hens said. “The continued budget cuts – we’re really out of options at this point. It’s kind of like which finger do you want to cut off your hand?”
He said that further cuts for highway will lead to dropping critical services such as driveway installations and ditching.
“There’s just nothing left to get rid of. Even if I was thinking about trying to privatize some of my department, you still have the maintenance and capital expense – there’s nothing left to cut, bottom line,” he said.
Hens’ 10-year capital plan shows expenditures for infrastructure and related expenses totaling $125 million.
Legislator Marianne Clattenburg brought up the nursing home money and asked what the county’s share was when federal aid for infrastructure came into play.
Hens said that the county’s share is normally 5 percent, prompting Clattenburg to respond that 5 percent of $125 million was about $6 million – less than the $7.5 million in nursing home money.
“Where’s the crisis here?” she asked. To which Hens replied, “The crisis is the fact that we don’t always get federal aid. I usually program two federal aid bridges a year and we don’t always get that.”
Clattenburg then blamed federal lawmakers for putting the county in such a bind.
“We need to stop fighting each other and start thinking about real problems that people are having in Congress. We’re ready to go – we’ve been frugal. We put the money away so we can do this work, and now everything is stalled,” she said.
Legislator Andrew Young agreed, wondering, “Why they’re not talking about an infrastructure bill at the federal level? I don’t get it.”
Despite the financial woes, Hens said he is submitting a county road fund budget of $5,799,749 for 2021, within about $18,000 of the 2020 budget. The county’s general fund contributes more than $5.3 million of that amount.
He said the budget could increase by up to $50,000 if the Town of Bethany enters into a plowing and mowing agreement with the county for next year.