Sunday, August 1, 2010

A bridge to somewhere?

For the past 80 years, town officials in Edinburg New York (population 1,384 in the 2000 census) have been lobbying to replace the aging 80-year-old Batchellerville Bridge which connects the two halves of their town on opposite sides of the Great Sacandaga Lake.

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The Batchellerville Bridge makes an interesting case study in public goods, cost-benefit analysis, and political decision-making processes. The 80-year-old bridge is crumbling. There have been protracted arguments about how high the replacement should be--high enough to accommodate tall sailboats? But what about the safety issues (the steeper grade on an icy bridge in the winter?) And the noise from trucks going up the steeper grades? And the interference with scenic views of the Adirondacks in the background of the bridge. And how to come up with the money to pay for it?

Today's Schenectady Daily Gazette reports:

EDINBURG — After a generation of plans and delays, preliminary work has begun on building a modern bridge across Great Sacandaga Lake.


One of the longest spans in upstate New York, the Batchellerville Bridge is the only direct link between the two halves of Edinburg that are divided by the lake and is vital to the local community and economy. The long deterioration of the 3,078-foot span has been a source of anxiety all around the lake — at least until work on a replacement started.

...[T]he Batchellerville span is vital to locals, who without it would be forced to take lengthy detours around the lake. Losing the bridge, Raymond has often said, would have had a devastating effect on the Edinburg community — on its schools, on its fire and ambulance services and on every local business on both sides of the lake.

The 80-year-old bridge has already crumbled and deterioriated to the point where traffic is only allowed to go in one direction at a time to limit the amount of weight on it. This creates substantial delays for the 2,200 cars that currently cross it on a daily basis (with double that volume in the summer tourist season.)

Moreover, the current 15-ton weight limit creates problems for the large trucks serving local businesses, especially the logging industry. Their trucks are currently forced into lengthy detours around the 29-mile long lake--you can see those detours when you zoom out. As the Gazette reported an anecdotal example:

Jay Edwards, who owns a logging and timber business in Edinburg, said his trucks have not been able to use the bridge for at least 15 years. He invited officials to do the math: 25 to 30 extra miles to get around the Great Sacandaga Lake at four miles per gallon. People in the audience groaned.

The new bridge will cost $47 million. Is it worth it?

Good question for a cost-benefit study.

Although the number of year-round residents in Edinburg and surrounding towns is small, the bridge also serves the many tourists who visit this beautiful part of the state in the foothills of the Adirondacks each summer. The new bridge will also be safer and designed to encourage use by pedestrians and cyclists. The clearance of the new bridge will be high enough for many sailboats to navigate as well. Emergency vehicles will be able to cross it more quickly and firetrucks will be able to cross it, even when their water tanks are full.

Who is paying for the new bridge?

The state owns the current bridge, though it did not originally use public funds to build it back in 1929. The original bridge was part of a then-controversial flood control program that flooded the Sacandaga River to create a large lake to protect downstream communities. The whole flood control project cost $12 million, including about half a million dollars for the bridge. The downstream businesses that benefited from the flood control paid the cost of the project. Land speculation was apparently rampant at the time, and some speculators apparently made fortunes, while many hapless small property owners were forced to accept whatever the project decided to pay them for their homes and businesses in the area condemned to be used as a reservoir.

Of course, the current downstream businesses and property owners take the flood control benefits for granted, so no private interests are volunteering to step forward to pay for the replacement bridge today. The state and federal government will fund the costs of the replacement bridge.

Compared to the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," the Batchellerville bridge seems like a bargain.

Still, it's an interesting exercise to think about the cost-benefit analysis for this bridge.

Long division is a useful quick and dirty exercise to put large numbers into some kind of perspective. There are 4,830 property owners with access rights surrounding the lake with strong vested interests in the bridge. Depending on their location (i.e., distance from the bridge), some benefit more than others, but dividing $47 million by the 4,830 property owners yields an average cost of roughly $10,000 per property owner. How many of those owners would consider the benefits of the bridge to be worth that amount of money to them? If you offered the property owners $10,000 each instead of constructing the bridge, how many would be happy to take the money and dispense with the bridge?

Lots of food for thought.

Some people who would like to sail taller sailboats might prefer that the bridge just disappear altogether, because even the new bridge isn't high enough for them. The Mayfield Yacht Club has suggested:

Just take it down. No bridge means no obstruction of view, no light pollution, no noise pollution, will save New York taxpayers $35 million (plus millions spent on bridge maintenance over 75 years), and allow all boaters full access to the lake. Many believe this bridge in any shape or form is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

It should be pointed out that no other major lake in upstate New York is bisected by a bridge. Not Lake George, Saratoga Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake, Canandaigua, Owasco, Skaneateles, Oneida Lake, Indian Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Schroon Lake, Ballston Lake, or Lake Champlain.

But the Batchellorsville Bridge apparently has much louder and more numerous voices in support. And of course, some business-owners, such the logger mentioned above, might find the bridge to be worth far more than $10,000.

There are lots of interesting questions here. $47 million in construction spending will create a lot of jobs, of course, but we could also spend $47 million to help school districts retain teachers they will otherwise have to lay off or to provide countless other goods.

And no doubt the case for spending state funds on the bridge was helped by the fact that the bridge is located within the district of a long-tenured State Senator. (At the time the state funds were originally committed, his party had long controlled the NY Senate.)

The case for spending federal funds? Well, it's clearly a shovel-ready project, since the plans have been on the books for years. And even more importantly, it's in Scott Murphy's Congressional District--and his hold on that district is precarious. (The district was traditionally Republican until Kirstin Gillibrand managed to convert it to the Democratic column in 2006. When she was appointed to the Senate last year to fill Hillary Clinton's unexpired term, Murphy managed to squeak through in a nail-bitingly close election: the initial vote-count margin was 60 votes out of 150,000 cast. Just a few weeks before that special election, he had been trailing by 20 points.)

Is the Batchellerville Bridge worth $47 million? It is really hard for me to say. The State Department of Transportation has studied it for years and considered many alternatives such as repairing/reconstructing the existing bridge. There are a lot of smart engineers at NYDOT.

Then again, much closer to my home, NYDOT also decided to spend $5 million building a new bridge to replace a crumbling bridge to Niska-Isle. That bridge is only 588 feet long and connects the town to a tiny strip of land with nine homes on it.

At that rate, $47 million for a much heavier duty and larger bridge five times as long serving almost 5,000 property owners seems like a relative bargain.

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