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Harsh winters, heavy traffic and little money for repairs have taken a toll on hundreds of local and county bridges.

Nearly half of the 1,165 county, town and city bridges in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties are "deficient" and need fixing, state Department of Transportation statistics show.

Rated among the area's worst are the Michigan Avenue bridge over Exchange Street in downtown Buffalo, scheduled for work later this year; Amherst's North Forest Road bridge, now under construction; and the Ridge Road bridge in Lackawanna, a big-ticket project for next year.

Two Rod Road bridge over Cayuga Creek in Alden, Forest Meadow Drive bridge in the Village of Orchard Park and the Glen Avenue bridge in Williamsville are less traveled but in just as poor condition, state ratings show.

"Deficient doesn't mean it's unsafe," said Timothy D. Roach, bridge maintenance engineer for the state Department of Transportation's four-county region.

"It means that it has deteriorated from its original condition and is in need of repair," said Roach, comparing deficient bridges to an old, rusting car. "If unchecked, those deficiencies of the bridge will accelerate and affect the ability of the bridge to carry the loads it was designed for."

Local and county bridges, in particular, are in worse shape than area bridges that the state maintains, inspection data shows.

"A lot of it has to do with funding. Bridges are not cheap to replace," said Erie County Public Works Commissioner Maria C. Lehman.

"We just haven't had the funding allocated to bridges. The county in the past has had some years when they didn't fund any bridges. A lot of the money goes to fixing roads that see the most amount of traffic."

A recent Associated Press computer analysis of federal highway records found 167,993 of 587,755 bridges nationwide -- or 29 percent -- were rated "deficient" as of Aug. 31.

New York ranks as the seventh-worst in the nation for the condition of its bridges, with 7,038 bridges out of 17,387 -- or 40 percent -- rated deficient.

Locally, the state's record is better. Just 20 percent of the state's area bridges are rated deficient, state officials said.

Tragedy leads to action

The Department of Transportation set up a routine bridge-maintenance program to clean, paint and seal all 865 bridges in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, after 10 people died in 1987 when the Thruway bridge over Schoharie Creek collapsed, Roach said.

The maintenance program has helped reduce the number of deficient state bridges in the four-county region from 33 percent in 1990, Roach said.

"New York State has put a real emphasis on preventative maintenance," Roach said.

"But," he said, "I know that has not taken place with the same diligence on the local side."

Local transportation experts agree. Though the county and town often receive federal aid to fix overpasses, bridge money in local budgets is often scarce.

"The localities are in much worse shape than the state," said John Neidhart, regional manager of Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group whose members build the bridges.

"Most of the municipal bridges are county-owned, and they just don't get the money," Neidhart said. "There's never enough funds in the budget to do the things they need to do."

The Department of Transportation hires a consultant to inspect city, town and county bridges every year or two depending on the bridge conditions, said Darrell F. Kaminski, regional structures engineer for the department. The bridges are rated from 1 to 7. Seven is the best.

The worst area bridges rated about a 3 -- serious deterioration -- mostly because of decaying bridge joints, road surface and support beams, Kaminski said.

"Anything we find unsafe or a danger to the traveling public is immediately dealt with," Kaminski said.

Other factors compound the problems. So many of the bridges are old, it's hard to keep pace with needed maintenance, said Dorson Wilson, Niagara County's commissioner of public works.

"We have like 30 or 40 of them that were built out of timber in the 1930s or '40s, and their life span is gone," Wilson said.

Western New York's weather is another constant battle, as is the presence of more vehicles on bridges not built to handle the wear and tear from today's traffic.

"Given the salt put on the road and the traffic, of course our bridges take a worse beating than bridges in Florida, California or some of the warmer climates," said Ralph Abate, president of Abate Engineering Associates in Cheektowaga.

"The problem is we fix one bridge and another turns obsolete," said Abate, whose firm has been inspecting local and county bridges for the state since 1980. "We can't get ahead of the game."

A work in progress

But localities are making some progress.

The proportion of deficient bridges in the region has been reduced from 56 percent in 1990 to 45 percent now, Roach said.

Erie County earmarked about $1 million for bridge improvements last year -- which is about average -- but the county has budgeted $6.8 million for bridge rehabilitation this year, said Charles Sickler, director of engineering for Erie County's Public Works.

"We are on top of the problem," said Daniel J. Rider, Erie County's deputy highway commissioner. "We're going to do three or four this year. Next year will be the big year, when we hope to do about a dozen.

"Bear with us," Rider said. "We have a program in hand."

Deteriorating joints, beams and surfaces make these among the area's worst rated bridges:

* Michigan Avenue bridge over Exchange Street in Buffalo. Work scheduled in fall.

* North Forest Road bridge in Amherst. Under construction.

* Two Rod Road bridge over Cayuga Creek in Alden. Work scheduled in fall.

* Glen Avenue bridge over Ellicott Creek in Williamsville. Work scheduled next year.

* Ridge Road bridge over train tracks in Lackawanna. Work delayed until 2002.

* Forest Meadow Drive bridge in Village of Orchard Park.

* Dale Road bridge over Eighteen-Mile Creek in Lockport. Work scheduled for 2003.

* Loveland bridge over Bull Creek in Wheatfield. Work scheduled for 2002.

Source: State Department of Transportation.

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