NY: Hutchinson bridges battered by wayward trucks

Police investigate the site of a tractor-trailer accident

Police investigate the site of a tractor-trailer accident that closed northbound lanes of the Hutchinson River Parkway for three hours. The tractor trailer, traveling illegally on the parkway which is not designed for high vehicles, smashed into the Westchester Avenue overpass. (Jan. 23, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Beware the Hutch!

Those should be watchwords of commercial drivers in Westchester County, according to new data from the state showing that bridges over the Hutchinson River Parkway have the highest number of truck strikes in the Hudson Valley.

One bridge alone, carrying state Route 120A over the limited-access highway at Rye Brook, registered 95 truck hits from 1993 to mid-2010, the most of any span in the Hudson Valley, according to data released by the state Department of Transportation.

"The signage and warnings are very poor," said Robert Sinclair Jr., AAA New York's manager of media relations, who drove over many of the bridges on the Hutchinson River Parkway as part of a separate, soon-to-be-released study on truck-bridge collisions.

"That was the case at many entrances," Sinclair said. "They were small and few in number, and once you got on the roadway, there was no warning about the height of the next overpass till you were at the next overpass itself."

Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association, a trade group, said out-of-state drivers are responsible for most of the bridge strikes on the Hutchinson River Parkway, which prohibits commercial vehicles.

Many are unfamiliar with older highways not designed to accommodate the height of modern trucks and they gravitate to the Hutch as an alternative for I-95 and other roads, she said.

Ironically, GPS devices, designed to keep motorists from getting lost, are cited by police and transportation experts as a key contributor to the bridge-collision problem.

"There's a commercial GPS truckers should be using that would give them warnings about overpasses," Sinclair said. "If you use a passenger car GPS . . . it doesn't filter out highways with overpasses that won't accommodate a tall truck."

Most-struck overpasses

The data from the state show that, in fact, bridges over the Hutchinson River Parkway and one of the highway's elevated exit ramps account for nine of the 15 most-struck bridges in the entire Hudson Valley from 2003 through mid-2010.

Besides Route 120A, rounding out the top five bridges struck most often between 1993 and 2010 were:

• The overpass that carries Mamaroneck Road traffic over the Hutch. That bridge notched 90 vehicle strikes.

• The Lincoln Avenue bridge over the Hutch, which scored 40 hits.

• The Route 125 overpass over the Hutch, which had 35 strikes.

• The bridge carrying East Third Street over the Hutch in Mount Vernon with 32 strikes.

The first non-Hutchinson River Parkway bridge to make the state list at No. 7 is the span carrying Route 117 over the Saw Mill River Parkway in Bedford Hills. It took 28 vehicle strikes.

The only bridge not carrying car or truck traffic was a span carrying Metro-North New Haven line trains over Route 1 in New Rochelle. That structure was hit 22 times.

In addition to Westchester County, bridges in Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Putnam and Columbia counties were included in the DOT's ranking. Only Westchester structures, however, were listed in the top 15.

Sinclair said that when trucks mistakenly wander onto the Hutchinson River Parkway, slamming their 13 1/2-foot-tall rigs into bridges, havoc ensues.

"Vehicles have to be backed out, probably off-loaded, [to] get them to a previous entrance," he said.

Damages from strikes rack up

On average, the Westchester County Department of Public Safety handles roughly one bridge strike a week. In all of 2011, for instance, there were 50, county officials said.

And every truck strike results in drivers, trucking companies or insurance companies being billed for the cleanup.

"I have seen bills ranging from $13,000 to $25,000 depending on the circumstances," said a spokesman with public safety, which is charged with removing wayward trucks and cleaning up their debris from the Hutchinson, Saw Mill, Cross County and Bronx River parkways.

Besides the expense involved in accident cleanups, there is the cost of repairing damage to the bridge. Sue Stepp, a regional DOT spokeswoman, said that so far this year through August, the agency has collected $27,370 to pay for damage on bridges, not including those that were incurred on I-95, I-84, the Tappan Zee Bridge and the New York State Thruway.

The agency also is chasing about $58,000 owed for strikes from November 2009 to Aug. 31, Stepp said.

The damages could be far higher were it not for the old-school construction standards on many of the bridges spanning highways like the 1920s-era Hutch.

"Those arch bridges don't typically sustain damage when they get hit by a truck," Stepp said. "The trucks take a beating."

For truckers, those costs can add up.

"There's the bridge, the vehicle load, damage to cargo," Adams said. "There's huge cost to the carrier any time the driver hits a bridge."

Vivid road markings, signals

Adams sits on a bridge-strike task force whose members include the DOT, providers of GPS data and the Westchester Department of Public Safety.

The task force will likely issue recommendations by early 2013 that would help to reduce the number of truck strikes. Among the ideas being considered are vivid road markings leading to restricted parkways and messages to truckers via citizen's band radio or smartphone to warn them of roads that will not accommodate big rigs.

Said Adams: "Progress is being made. There are a lot of great ideas."

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