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Time to replace? Portageville Bridge, ?boost local economy

Leaders in New York have been talking about improving the state's aging infrastructure and sparking job creation for New Yorkers.

I'd like to make a suggestion – replace the archaic Portageville Bridge with a state-of-the-art structure, a project that will help kick-start the economy throughout the Southern Tier.

The 137-year-old Portageville Bridge – which links Buffalo to international markets – has been described by the state Department of Transportation as a "shell of its former self" and "approaching the end of its useful design," leading the agency to conclude that the "situation is increasingly precarious."

During the last 25 years, the size and weight of rail freight cars has grown. The bridge, however, cannot be upgraded to handle these larger cars, a real detriment to the route and the Southern Tier.

In September 2009, the bridge's owner, Norfolk Southern, had to shut the bridge down for several days to conduct emergency repairs, and if it has to be closed again, perhaps permanently, the effects could be devastating to the Southern Tier.

The benefits of a new bridge are too positive to pass up. A new bridge means agriculture, energy, steel, automobile and other economic sectors can operate efficiently and make investments, which could lead to job creation.

Already businesses are investing in anticipation of a new bridge, as evidenced by Norfolk Southern and Pan Am Railways constructing a $40 million terminal near Albany that will be linked by rail to the Southern Tier.

Interest in using the bridge and its tracks is on the rise as local railcar traffic increased dramatically from 2009 to 2010.

And that may just be the beginning. U.S. Department of Transportation projects demand for freight transportation nationwide will grow by 92 percent by 2035, and some of that freight will be coming through the Southern Tier, which is situated between Chicago and ports in the Northeast.

And the Portageville Bridge not only carries Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific trains, it supports 10 short-line railroads, which in turn support jobs and industries.

Should the line remain open and the bridge replaced, a new rail service between the New York Port Authority and Buffalo would run across the new bridge.

Without a new bridge, we could see delayed shipments, added costs for railroad customers and some companies choosing to ship their goods in trucks, adding tractor-trailer traffic to local roads. That's money those customers could use to invest and create jobs.

The old bridge represents a missed opportunity to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well.

Trains today can haul a ton of freight on average 484 miles per gallon of fuel, an efficiency standard that's hard to match, and a direct line through the Southern Tier as opposed to a roundabout way makes for a greener option.

We face a choice that's viable, beneficial and essential to leading the Southern Tier toward a better local economy.

Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific have pledged to spend millions toward creating a new arch bridge, signaling strong belief in the potential of the Southern Tier. The state DOT has pledged its support, too. The cost to replace the bridge has doubled since 2000, estimated to be $40 million.

In addition to economic benefits, there is a safety component. Trespassers walk onto the Portageville Bridge, putting their lives and the safety of railroad employees in jeopardy – something a new bridge with appropriate prevention measures could help address.

Given these considerations, we ask local and state leaders to join us as partners in creating a new bridge that will keep this essential rail line open. The Portageville Bridge has served its purpose laudably, and the day has come for a replacement to surpass that legacy.

Carl Belke is president and chief operation officer of Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad.