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Storrow accident prompts discussion: budget v. safety

When a piece of roadway fell down and hit a driver’s car on Storrow Drive a week and a half ago, the reality of the larger issues plaguing Massachusetts transportation also came crashing down, engineering experts said. Budgetary and weather issues have created a system in which frequent repairs are necessary, yet are difficult to fit into a tight state budget.

On Feb. 7 a piece of concrete from the Bowker Overpass, a ramp on Storrow Drive, fell onto the roadway below and hit the rear window shield of a car, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation Press Secretary Wendy Fox said. No drivers were hurt.

The DCR immediately dispatched repair crews to fix the problem, Fox said.

‘We closed the roadway underneath where the concrete had fallen while it was being repaired,’ she said. ‘The crew had been out inspecting all the ramps and putting protecting sheets under to make sure it doesn’t fall until it’s finished.’

The repair was completed as soon as possible and Storrow Drive re-opened on Feb. 9 around 3:30 a.m., Fox said.

‘It would not have been opened if the commissioner had not been satisfied with the work,’ Fox said.

The department’s investigation suggested the incident may have been related to weather changes in the Boston area, Fox said.

‘When water gets inside the concrete and seeks into cracks, it freezes and thaws,’ Fox said. ‘This accident happened after a thaw the day before, and those conditions caused potholes and the concrete to break.’

Boston University geography and environment professor James Baldwin agreed.

‘We have freezing and thawing cycles that pull apart the concrete structure and erode the metal,’ Baldwin said. ‘This climate is tough on transportation infrastructure.’

Northeastern University civic engineering professor Peter Furth said that students should be careful when using the highways, but should not exaggerate the dangers.

‘If it happens twice then it’s unsafe,’ Furth said. ‘If it happens once, you don’t hear people say they want to take another route.’

Although it is the first time this sort of incident has happened on Storrow Drive, the road has long been singled out for needing repairs since it was completed in 1951, Furth said.

‘The state knows that their bridges are in a lot of bad shape,’ Furth said. ‘There are high urgency and replacement agencies and there is a lot of money put into working on bridges.’

Baldwin said the deterioration of the overpass shows a lack of basic infrastructure maintenance and poor management of state funds.

‘It’s certainly a case of general decline for maintenance of transportation,’ Baldwin said. ‘To keep things safer needs funds. The state’s tight budget makes it harder with its lack of money going towards it. They’re doing badly with limited funds and limited resource.’

The recently passed economic stimulus plan might be the answer to these problems, Baldwin said.

‘There is deliberation in the economic stimulus bill to increase funding for jobs, but also for transportation infrastructure that can address these safety issues and the decline of bridges,’ Baldwin said.

The $787 billion stimulus plan, passed by Congress late Friday night, includes millions of dollars for states to improve roads, bridges and transportation. The infrastructure improvements will contribute to the approximately 3.5 million jobs that the stimulus plan aims to create and save.

‘We should see some improvements quickly,’ Baldwin said.

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