Road Rage

The full, gobsmacking truth about how our state's crumbling infrastructure got this bad. And why there's so little hope of fixing the problem.

ON A CRISP OCTOBER MORNING, Farhad Rastegari steered his state-issued Honda Civic onto the Expressway, heading north out of town. Rastegari is in charge of the Massachusetts Highway Department’s bridge inspections, and he and I were on our way to watch one of his teams at work near the Assembly Square mall on the Somerville–East Boston line.

Well before the bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River in August, injecting genuine urgency into what, up to then, had been a rather sleepy national debate on the condition of our infrastructure, the roads and bridges in Massachusetts were a source of considerable anxiety. Having grown accustomed to holding our breath whenever we crossed the Tobin or used the Ted Williams Tunnel, a lot of us assumed that if a major bridge were going to go tumbling down into a river, there was a good chance it was going to happen right here. We’d already seen falling tiles crush to death a woman driving through a brand-new tunnel. We’d already gotten used to splashing our way through the leaking Big Dig, already read more than we’d ever cared to know about the 550 or so bridges in Massachusetts carrying that terrifying designation “structurally deficient.” In the past few years, in other words, we’d all become more aware of just how much is riding on Rastegari’s work.

As he and I approached Exit 29, Rastegari, a gentle man of 51 who was born in Iran and moved to the United States in 1980, signaled right and circled down the off-ramp. It turned out that the bridge we’d come to see was actually an elevated section of the southbound Expressway, which used to extend through downtown Boston but now, of course, leads across the Zakim Bridge and down under the city. Rastegari parked in a gated lot beneath the highway. Around the perimeter were mounds of salt and sand for the coming winter storms, and at the base of one of the mounds a homeless person had set up camp, a few articles of his tattered clothing strung across a ladder.

Spanning it all was bridge B-16-281. Built in 1970, and measuring 364 feet long and 70 feet wide, it’s one of the approximately 5,000 bridges in Massachusetts that are longer than 20 feet and therefore, under federal guidelines, must be inspected every two years. It had last been checked on October 3, 2005, almost exactly two years earlier.

Raising his voice to be heard over the cars speeding above, Rastegari told me that there are three major sections of a bridge that must be inspected. Gesturing toward what appeared to be a run of corrugated steel, he pointed out the underside of the bridge’s deck, which consisted of “stay in place” forms over which reinforced concrete was poured and asphalt was then laid. The deck rested upon the superstructure—steel beams sitting on enormous concrete blocks—which, in turn, lay atop the substructure, concrete pillars that were sunk into the ground.

Inspectors give each section a grade between a 9 (which indicates new) and a zero. If any section scores a 4 or below, the bridge is classified as structurally deficient. Though that sounds worrisome, “By no means does that mean the bridge is unsafe,” Rastegari said. What it does mean is that the bridge must be checked more often.

Flipping through the report from the last inspection, Rastegari saw that both the deck and the superstructure had received a 7, a good score that, it dawned on me, might have had something to do with MassHighway showing this bridge to me. The substructure, however, had been judged only a 5. It was difficult to understand why, since the pillars appeared to be in decent shape. Rastegari explained the grade by showing me photos from the previous inspection. In those pictures, the concrete pillars were beginning to crumble, exposing the steel rebar inside. Since then, the pillars had been repaired and today looked almost new. “The five now, it might get changed to a six or seven because of the repairs,” Rastegari said. This news seemed to genuinely cheer him.

Approaching us then, wearing hardhats and orange safety vests, were bridge inspectors Tom Prendergast and Pradip Shah. Together, they compose one of the 16 inspection crews that MassHighway deploys across the state. Prendergast, binoculars hanging from his neck, had been checking other fixes made since the last inspection. “They did all the repairs,” he said, “and they’re excellent.” Again, this appeared to be something of a pleasant surprise. I asked Rastegari why the repairs were such a big deal. Wasn’t that the point of checking the bridges in the first place?

You’d think so, but in fact the bridge inspectors simply prepare their report and then turn it in to the director of whichever of the state’s five highway districts the bridge sits in. The director forwards the file to the district’s maintenance division, which prioritizes the order of the repairs. Since each district has a limited maintenance budget, and the majority of repairs are performed by private subcontractors, there is no telling how long it will be until a given bridge is fixed. “The inspectors sometimes get discouraged,” Rastegari said. “They come back two years later and the problem is the same—and it’s gotten worse.”

IT’S NOT JUST OUR BRIDGES THAT ARE GETTING WORSE. Many of the more than 35,000 miles of road in Massachusetts are in declining condition (our most heavily used highways are in relatively good shape, but the secondary routes are another story). Our rail system operates at a huge deficit and is beset with service problems. Our state hospitals, jails, courthouses, and college campuses are in varying degrees of disrepair. As a state, we continually understaff and underfund the myriad agencies charged with keeping our infrastructure in safe working order, and we fail to perform the kind of routine maintenance—washing corrosive road salt off our bridges in the springtime, and keeping them painted to ward off rust—that can prevent expensive repairs in the future. Putting just $100,000 into bridge maintenance, says MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky, can save $9 million in fixes down the line. Yet over and over we neglect to make these simple investments.

Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen says the state shortchanges bridge maintenance alone by $500 million a year. The Pioneer Institute, a public-policy think tank, recently released a report showing that in the century since the Longfellow Bridge opened to traffic, the span has undergone only two repair projects of any note, one in 1959 and the other in 2002. Steve Poftak, research director at the institute, estimates that investing one percent of the Longfellow’s value in routine maintenance each year would have cost about $120 million through the decades and would have kept the bridge in good condition. Instead, the bridge has fallen into decrepitude and will now cost $200 million to overhaul. And that’s merely one pending repair bill. The Transportation Finance Commission, convened by the state legislature in 2004 to investigate our crumbling infrastructure, released a report in March estimating that the maintenance requirements of just our existing roads and bridges will create a shortfall of as much as $19 billion over the next 20 years. The mess is so deep and so intractable there’s no politically effective way to downplay it. The Patrick administration doesn’t try. “We have inherited what I consider to be a dysfunctional series of agencies and underfunded assets that the people of Massachusetts have
not been told the truth about,” Cohen said at a transportation conference in September organized by the Pioneer Institute.

By now, every politician, public interest group, and transportation policy expert in Massachusetts knows full well how significant the problems are. What no one seems to know, however, is whether we can actually do anything about them.

IN THE LATE ’80S, when Fred Salvucci was secretary of transportation in the Dukakis administration, a budget crunch created by the passage of Proposition 2½ made it necessary to lay off many MassHighway workers. By 1989, the agency was down to about 3,300 employees. “We didn’t have the staff to do what was being asked of us,” recalls Salvucci, who now lectures at MIT. In 2001, MassHighway’s workforce had shrunk to 2,100, a number the Federal Highway Administration determined to be “well below the minimum” for inspection and testing, partly because a “significant number” of those staff members “lack the necessary training and qualifications” for their critical jobs. Today, with the state’s aging infrastructure two decades older, Paiewonsky has half the number of workers Salvucci had.

It’s not just in its staffing, though, that the agency is underfunded. “If we had our preferences, we’d probably be putting 20 to 40 percent of our budget into maintenance,” Paiewonsky says. Instead, the agency goes begging for resources for a task as essential as plowing. Salvucci recalls appearing before the legislature nearly every year to argue for money to keep the roads clear in a state where it’s been known, occasionally, to snow. “Well, it’s July,” they’d tell him. “Maybe it will be a warm winter.” Twenty years later, nothing has changed. At the transportation conference, Cohen said he gets half to two-thirds of the funds everyone knows he’ll need for snow removal, requiring him to go back midwinter to ask for more.

Paiewonsky says MassHighway is evolving, that it is in the process of hiring 100 new engineers, including, for the first time, a chief engineer brought in from outside. “We’re changing the way we budget,” she says, “the way we design.” Still, she acknowledges the agency is not adequately financed. The poor condition of the state’s infrastructure, she says, “is in large part a reflection of what we put into it.”

MASSHIGHWAY IS JUST ONE PIECE OF THE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM HERE in Massachusetts, which makes it just one of the agencies that don’t get what they need to ensure that our roads and bridges are safe. The Transportation Finance Commission found that “virtually every transportation agency in the state is running structural deficits and resorting to short-term quick fixes that hide systemic financial problems.” The Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Mass. Pike as well as the infrastructure associated with the Big Dig, has a backlog of maintenance projects, and just saw a bond-rating firm lower its outlook from stable to negative.

The MBTA, despite raising fares three times since 2000, remains plagued by poor service, and is going broke to boot. And then there’s the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, an agency primarily concerned with parklands and state-owned skating rinks, golf courses, and pools, and which for some reason also controls 275 miles of roadways—among them Storrow and Memorial drives—and 187 bridges, including the neglected Longfellow and every other span crossing the Charles River in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Watertown. The department, known as DCR, is the worst offender when it comes to infrastructure maintenance. The Transportation Finance Commission found that “DCR has little technical expertise related to managing these transportation assets.” Put another way, the agency charged with taking care of some of the most heavily used roads and bridges in Greater Boston has no idea how to do so.

This is insanity, of course, and so a plan has been worked out to transfer eight DCR repair projects, including the Longfellow and the Storrow Drive tunnel, to…the already overburdened, underfunded MassHighway. But MassHighway hasn’t been given the necessary additional money to actually do the DCR work, which will come to $400 million, so, as the commission notes, the projects have been put “in direct competition for funds” with MassHighway bridges that also need critical repairs.

The driver, naturally, cares little about which division or department or authority happens to oversee the particular piece of infrastructure he happens to be using at the moment. But this seemingly insignificant detail becomes, in practice, quite important. There is little sharing among these agencies, and no easy way for anyone outside them to assess how they’re doing at taking care of their assets. “If you asked the governor which agency is doing the best job on maintenance,” says the Pioneer Institute’s Poftak, “I’d say he’d be hard-pressed to know. And that’s no knock on him. We just don’t have it set up for anyone to have that kind of information.”

Each of the state’s transportation agencies has its own budget, its own maintenance routine, its own priorities. Each is its own fiefdom. At the Pioneer Institute conference, Secretary Cohen said it surprised him to discover that MassHighway and the Turnpike Authority order road salt separately. When he asked why they weren’t pooling their orders to get a better price, the Turnpike Authority told him, “The people supplying MassHighway know they won’t be paid on time. We get better rates already because [our suppliers] know they’ll get paid.”

Salvucci, sitting on the same panel at the conference, told the room that he felt sorry for Cohen. As transportation secretary, Cohen chairs the MBTA board and the Turnpike Authority and also sits on the board of the Port Authority, but the only agency he has real oversight of is MassHighway. Looking down the table at Cohen, Salvucci said whoever had his job was little more than a “punching bag,” a referee with no policing authority.

AS MASSACHUSETTS AT LAST PULLED out of its sluggish economy by the end of the 1990s, the state found itself enjoying a surplus. Despite the predictable calls for a tax cut or more spending, Representative Paul Haley, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had something else in mind. “I felt we should look at what our liabilities were,” he recalls. One that struck him, he says, was “our inability to maintain our assets.”

Before getting into politics, Haley had worked as a prosecutor in the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office, giving him firsthand experience with the deplorable condition of the state’s courthouses. His idea was to put some of the surplus toward the badly needed maintenance of state property. That was the plan, anyway. “I called around to see what was in need of repair,” he recalls, “and they couldn’t tell me. That was quite a surprise.” There was simply no central repository for that data, no one keeping track of the condition of public-owned buildings and equipment.

In 1998, Haley dedicated some of the budget surplus to maintenance for various agencies. (“Of course that was short-lived. As soon as money got tight again, that was the first thing to go.”) He also came up with an idea for an office tasked with keeping tabs on all state assets. The existing Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) seemed the ideal nerve center for this new effort. The following yea
r, to reflect its expanded mission, Haley had the agency renamed the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance. But in a move rich with symbolism, the division’s commissioner refused to accept the new name, supposedly remarking that she was not going to become state janitor. To this day, the division’s stationery excludes the “M word,” even though it is part of its formal name.

Regardless of its designation, DCAM at last represented an agency officially charged with the upkeep of state property. Now all that was needed was to figure out exactly what the state owned. “We barely even knew what existed in the inventory,” Haley says. The state spent $18 million on that project, including the purchase of a new database program to manage information about state-owned buildings and the equipment inside them. Today, that database, the Capital Asset Management Information System (CAMIS), has a detailed accounting of more than 5,000 buildings totaling 79 million square feet. Facility managers can schedule routine maintenance in CAMIS, and workers in those buildings can make note of things like a leaky pipe or a broken thermostat. DCAM also has experts on call to assist facilities managers with maintenance and repair questions.

Despite all that, however, there is no mandate from state government that any agency actually use the software, or any of the other services provided by DCAM. For that matter, there’s no rule that state agencies dedicate any particular percentage of their budget to maintenance at all. “We don’t tell them how to spend their money,” says DCAM Deputy Commissioner Mark Nelson. “They have to carve out a piece of their operational budget.” To the head of a state agency charged with running a hospital, facility maintenance can seem like a luxury. Money spent on upkeep can be, quite literally, money not spent saving lives. But the failure to perform routine maintenance, as we’ve seen with our bridges and roads, only leads to much costlier repairs later, and potentially even more money diverted from critical programs. “Our job,” Nelson says, “is to show they’d be foolish not to listen.”

THERE IS, OF COURSE, NEVER ENOUGH money to go around. We all demand safe roads and bridges, we want great schools and the best public services—but who wants higher taxes, or increased tolls, to pay for it all? With resources forever tight, it’s an easy guess what gets squeezed. “If I were a legislator,” Fred Salvucci says, “I’d give the money to the person who’s going to save a little kid, too. How can you compete with that each year?”

Thus underfunded, MassHighway, like other state agencies, borrows at an almost comical level to keep itself afloat. Of the 1,800 or so workers who remain at the department, the salaries of about 80 percent are paid via the issuance of bonds. Beyond the questionable financial practice of paying interest for 20 years on an employee’s salary—or on police cars, computers, lawn mowing, or any of the other ludicrous uses of borrowed state money—using bonds this way is disastrous for another reason. Massachusetts places a limit on how much it bonds each year (about $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2008), so every borrowed dime for salaries is a borrowed dime unavailable for, say, fixing a bridge. In 2004 more than 40 percent of the money the state spent on its highways went to paying off existing debt, the highest percentage in the country.

And at the same time our agencies are crying for funding to take care of the assets we already have, state leaders continue to promote costly new transportation projects. Just one example is the planned new South Coast Rail link that would bring commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford. The line, supported by Governor Patrick, is expected to cost $1.4 billion. Forget for a moment the T’s current $2.7 billion maintenance backlog and inability to keep its existing trains running on time: The project’s cost estimate itself reveals the sort of wrong-headed thinking that helped get us into this mess in the first place.

Over the life of a piece of infrastructure, construction will account for only 10 to 20 percent of its total cost, according to Northeastern University professor Joseph Giglio, a noted transportation thinker. The rest is maintenance. Understood this way, if the South Coast Rail line were to appear fully constructed, free of charge, tomorrow, it would still end up costing Massachusetts at least $7 billion in maintenance and repairs over its life cycle. That future financial obligation appears nowhere in the cost estimates—and it’s possible that the very officials pushing the project do not understand this crucial fact themselves.

EARLIER THIS FALL, the Transportation Finance Commission issued a second report, this one recommending steps Massachusetts can take to raise the money needed for its looming maintenance deficit. Among the suggestions were increasing highway tolls, raising the gas tax, and eliminating the state’s appalling requirement that police officers be paid to direct traffic at construction sites. But you have to wonder whether things have gotten so bad that new money will only make things worse. “I’m not ready to endorse new revenue proposals until the reform stuff gets done,” says Poftak. “We have such inefficiencies built into the system, the notion of just throwing more money at it is absurd.” Poftak works for an organization that leans Libertarian, so this sentiment is hardly a surprise. But he just might be right.

How, then, do we go about making the necessary changes? How do we begin to fix this debacle? As a start, the Patrick administration (which does seem to be making the sorry state of our infrastructure a priority) has floated an idea that everyone from Salvucci to the Pioneer Institute to Joseph Giglio to Luisa Paiewonsky supports, at least in theory. It wants to overhaul the state’s tangled transportation network and create a single entity—MassTrans is the working name—that would control all of our roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines, and ports. This being Massachusetts, though, everyone wants to see the fine print first. “Do I like it conceptually? Yes,” says Giglio. “Do I have confidence that it can be done effectively? Not necessarily.”

Poftak, meanwhile, has a few sensible recommendations of his own, including rules mandating that agencies devote a fixed percentage of their budgets to maintenance, and strict limitations on how bonded money may be spent. His Pioneer Institute, unsurprisingly, given its free-market disposition, also wants the state to at least explore the privatization of our infrastructure. Other states have had success auctioning off to private companies the right to build and operate their highways. Under this model—which proponents prefer to call “public-private partnerships”—the private company makes its money by charging tolls. The state receives revenue from the sale of the rights, and, according to this line of thinking, an assurance that its highways will be maintained, since the contractor has a financial incentive to keep the roads in good shape. The Patrick administration seems to have an open mind on this issue. “I think more and more we’re going to have to look at public and private partnerships,” Secretary Cohen said at the transportation forum. “We have to accept the fact that people who use public transportation are consuming it, and need to pay for it.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Minnesota, private industry smells an opportunity to capitalize on our fears that Massachusetts—or other states that are getting the same hard sell these days—could be next. At the same time, it’s difficult to disa
gree with something Giglio told me: “You cannot expect the same people who created the problem, and are part of the problem,” he said, referring to state government, “to fix the problem.”

IN THE SHADOW OF BRIDGE B-16-281, Farhad Rastegari and I walked over to the Exit 29 off-ramp, where Tom Prendergast was in a boom lift on the back of his truck. He checked the bridge’s deck for rust, cracks, and other signs of distress, then lowered the boom a bit and began to tap the concrete embankment with a hammer, listening for hollow or “punky” sounds. Afterward, he maneuvered himself underneath the span, getting up close to a steel support beam. “It’s very critical to make sure it’s not deteriorated,” Rastegari said. “If it gets thinned out, then all of a sudden the bridge might buckle.”

Because bridges in Massachusetts are getting older, it takes longer to inspect them. An inspection that used to take six hours with paperwork can now take twice that long, and a bridge in bad shape can take three or four days. With a team inspecting 10 to 15 bridges a month, Rastegari said, he could use another four or five crews.

Prendergast lowered the boom lift. “How are the bearings?” Rastegari asked him.

“Good,” Prendergast replied. “Everything is weathered steel. We haven’t really seen much. A couple of hairline fractures.”

I asked about several patches of crumbling concrete I’d noticed in different sections of the bridge where the deck met the superstructure. They were a disturbing sight, with rusty steel poking through the concrete. Rastegari explained that directly above the areas in question were joints where sections of the deck came together. The sections were intentionally left unconnected to give them flexibility that prevents damage as the deck contracts and expands with New England’s weather extremes. When the bridge was built 30 years ago, the joints were outfitted with rubber caps to prevent corrosive salty slush from dripping through them and onto the superstructure below.

Though the damage looked bad to my untrained eye, Rastegari said it didn’t pose any structural problem—yet. But eventually, he acknowledged, it was the kind of thing that could become a concern.

Prendergast agreed that leaking joints were the cause. “My guess is, 1970 vintage,” he said. “The caps have probably never been replaced.”