Eroding Trust: The State of our Bridges in Erie County

Nearly 90 bridges in Erie County in poor condition
Posted at 5:29 PM, Nov 22, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — How safe are the bridges you use to get to work or school? Who is looking out for your safety?

The State of Bridges in Erie County

For months, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team has been pouring over data from the New York State Department of Transportation. Our analysis shows 87 of the 892 bridges in Erie County — just about 10% — are considered to be in poor status and structurally deficient.

Of those 87 bridges, 35 of them — 40% — are owned by the New York State DOT. The Thruway Authority owns 18 bridges in the same condition; Erie County owns 17 and the City of Buffalo owns 12.

See the location of every structurally deficient Erie Co. bridge here:

A bridge is considered structurally deficient by the State DOT if it needs "significant maintenance and repair to remain in service and eventual rehabilitation or replacement to address deficiencies."

In 2021, just two "poor" status bridges were removed from the list in Erie County, meaning it would take on average 45 years to fix all of the structurally deficient bridges.

Now, our investigation has a state senator calling for change.

A Grand Island Bridge Crumbling

Along the I-190, any number of drivers are passing under Beaver Island Parkway on Grand Island. The bridge itself is rusted, with rebar exposed and concrete crumbling.

Jim Strzalkowski is one of those drivers, who is back and forth on the 190 every single day. Sometimes, he says, he's using the thruway four times each day.

Driving under this bridge in particular, he's concerned for his safety.

"I think about it often," Strzalkowski says. He questions, "Is this the day that the bridge is going to collapse when you're driving over it? Driving under it, you know you wonder is a piece of concrete going to fall on top of my car?"

This bridge over the 190 is rated poor by the State DOT. It was built in 1954.

The I-Team has gone through hundreds of pages of records, reporting the conditions of almost 1,000 bridges in Erie County to find the bridges that are in bad shape.

In this case, the last time the Beaver Island Parkway bridge was inspected was in 2020. But it's been rated poor since 2002. That's almost 20 years. This bridge in particular is owned by the New York State Thruway Authority.

Beaver Island Parkway on Grand Island

"It needs to get fixed," Strzalkowski said. "This is ridiculous to see this report. What if it does collapse? Then it'll be too late."

"They have to do better," said New York State Senator Tim Kennedy.

Kennedy, who represents Buffalo, is the Chairman of Transportation Committee.

After 7 Eyewitness News alerted Kennedy to the condition of this bridge, he called out the Thruway Authority in a letter to its executive director.

Kennedy acknowledges a $9 million replacement that's set for 2024, but is now urging work to begin — and end — sooner rather than later.

Letter from Sen. Tim Kennedy to NYSTA by Sean Mickey on Scribd

"Our job is to advocate. So when we see a road or bridge in disrepair or we get a call from a constituent who has a complaint, we fast track that," Kennedy told the I-Team.

The Thruway Authority would not provide someone to speak with the I-Team about this bridge — or the 17 others — under its ownership that are also rated in poor condition.

Instead, a spokesperson sent us a statement explaining:

"Every bridge located on the New York State Thruway is safe for travel including those with a [...] classification of poor."

While the spokesperson says $326 million has been invested into Western New York infrastructure since 2016, this is far from the only bridge of concern in Erie County.

More Funds Needed for Infrastructure?

The State Department of Transportation owns 35 bridges, countywide, that are also rated in poor condition. That includes seven bridges over the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo.

Susan Surdej, the Regional Public Information Officer for the NYSDOT would not speak with the I-Team on camera. Instead, she released a statement also claiming bridges are safe, despite the rating. Surdej said the new infrastructure bill from Washington, would help address investment in these bridges.

"We have to focus on the priority infrastructure projects, that are not only important to the fabric of our community, but could also potentially put people in harms way," Kennedy said. "That's my message for the DOT." Kennedy says they've got to step up.

Surdej notes, the DOT is in the process of spending more than $177 million to improve infrastructure. Kennedy says that's not enough.

"What they have done thus far is not working not only for our community, but for the state," Kennedy said. "They have to do better."

New Technology Could Expedite Inspections

One way the DOT can mitigate the cost of bridge inspection is with the use of drones. Those conversations are seemingly at a standstill.

"We haven't probably talked to the DOT for most of this year. I think there was a lot going on in New York that precluded those conversations from happening," said Ken Stewart, the CEO of NUAIR.

NUAIR is the company working with the Thruway Authority only, at this point, as part of a pilot program to inspect bridges using drone technology.

NUAIR Bridge Inspection

"I think it's really understanding and getting the resources to say, 'how can we adopt this new technology-- what's really the benefit for us,'" Stewart said.

He says the benefit is how long it takes for a drone to inspect the bridge. By air, it only takes a half hour compared to eight hours of manpower. Stewart also says it provides a digital baseline, to show a bridge's erosion over time.

But it's the Beaver Island Parkway bridge that has eroded significantly — and has been for as long as Jim Strzalkowski can remember.

"It's very frustrating," Strzalkowski said. "They need to get down here and get into action...and get work done on this."

He says he's called the Thruway Authority to voice concern about the bridge's condition, but he says he doesn't get anywhere.

"It just seems to fall on deaf ears. They say we're working on it [and] it's on the list," Strzalkowski said.

Strzalkowski is hoping now, the state sees the urgent need to fix this bridge as many people return back to work and school.