Ten years ago the voters of New Jersey approved overwhelmingly a ballot question providing $500 million to fix many of our crumbling bridges, formally known as the 1999 Local Bridge Bond Act. Overall, at least for many county bridges, including those in Mercer, progress has been slow to non-existent. The recent ribbon cutting ceremonies only highlight the celebration of failure.

Specific projects still not completed or just opened for traffic reflect broken public trust — too costly, unconscionably delayed, or resources diverted to other purposes like budget balancing. It’s as if many forgot that the overriding intent of the 1999 act was to repair or replace many deteriorated, smaller bridges to assure safe and efficient use by the traveling public.

Mercer County is a significant case in point. A formal, forensic audit needs to be done, but the following are salient performance metrics that show without fear of contradiction that ribbon cuttings and kudos, similar to the Rosedale Road Stony Brook Bridge ceremony, celebrate failure. And the failure is not that of designers or contractors, who did a great job.

Points related to performance failures are:

— The Local Bridge Bond Act of 1999 Status Report dated July 2002, shows $250 million appropriated for counties statewide. Of that, $174 million had been sent to the counties and $60 million was ready to be sent for approved programs. Only $15 million cash in hand or available was expended.

— From that same 2002 report, Mercer County had more than $10 million appropriated and had received more than $5 million, with an additional $5 million approved and ready to be sent. All the funds parsed out were for bridges Mercer had identified. Nothing had been actually expended for any work to date.

— Moving ahead to November, 2005, an updated status report shows Mercer County expended only 4.4 percent — $460,000 of the $10 million cash available as cited in the 2002 report. The now-celebrated Rosedale Road Bridge was put out for design in July, 2005. As of that November no monies were reported as expended for any work, design or otherwise.

— Updating for May, 2008, six years after cash was received, Mercer County had expended just over 50 percent of its Bridge Bond Act monies and, overall, counties statewide had more than $70 million still in the bank. In March there was still some $60 million unexpended nearly 10 years after voters approved the money.

I find it chilling to look at news reports from this year , where we see the following obviously PR-related releases:

“Mercer County projects will boost job market,” the Times, January 23, 2009. In the article Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes cites eight bridge projects the county is advancing. Not new or stimulus projects, but shockingly ineffective delivery of infrastructure projects already in the program for years.

How many of these could have been funded by the 1999 Bridge Bond Act and already completed long before this “good news” announcement?

Bridges now closed or closed recently as cited in the Times are Province Line Road (closed for years), Van Kirk Road in Lawrence, Rosedale Road (just opened in November), and Jacobs Creek Bridge in Hopewell Township (closed indefinitely in September).

We cannot repeat this way of addressing infrastructure needs if we ever hope to deal with the “crumbling of America,” now well-defined in New Jersey as the worst in the nation. New Jersey has thousands of deteriorated bridges that are more than 50 years old. Mercer County has more than 300 that are suspect as a minimum.

As an engineer and construction professional for more 50 years, I can state that there are no plausible explanations, only excuses, for any public agency to take up to eight years after funds are received to repair or replace a structurally deficient, short span bridge. One has to wonder how many years it will take for local stimulus monies to be put to work. Until work starts onsite, there are no significant jobs saved or created for industry.

I would be curious to see what the results would be from an updated report. May, 2008, was the last report provided. Some may want to ask, “Where’s the Money?” Let’s hope that the stimulus dollars don’t get the same treatment and go either unused or used on things they are not intended.

Clearwater is a retired U.S. Navy engineer who moved to Princeton in 1984 and became involved in major infrastructure work and issues in New Jersey.

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