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Parkway headache: Trucks hitting road bridges

A tractor trailer stuck under a bridge on

A tractor trailer stuck under a bridge on the Southern State Parkway at Exit 30N in North Massapequa slowed traffic dramatically in the eastbound lanes. ( March 16, 2012) Credit: Paul Mazza

Trucks are hitting bridges on Long Island's state roads dozens of times a year, creating traffic headaches and $7 million in repair and maintenance costs in the past five years.

Throughout New York, about 200 bridge hits have occurred each year since 2005, according to an analysis of state Department of Transportation figures. In 2010 and 2011, about a quarter of them happened on Long Island.

Bridge hits require closing lanes or entire roadways for investigations, cleanup and repairs, costing time and money for travelers and state agencies.

Commercial vehicles straying illegally onto the parkway system and over-height equipment on construction trucks represent most of the hits, state records show.

"We've invested a lot of funds in signing all over the parkway system and adjoining routes," said Frank Pearson, head of traffic safety on Long Island for the DOT. "Still, the trucks keep taking on the parkway bridges and the bridges keep winning."

The state has spent $3 million for 300 new bridge warning signs and efforts to educate truck drivers on Long Island in the past five years, officials said.

Despite being hit most often, the reinforced concrete arched parkway bridges typically suffer little damage, Pearson said.

Damage to steel bridges

That's not the case when the same truck strikes a steel girder, the type of bridge used for many spans over the Long Island Expressway and the Sunrise Highway. The impact can affect the bridge's load capacity and require immediate repairs, he said. From 2007 to 2011, the state spent $4.1 million on "major repairs" to five steel bridges.

According to a state study led by Anil K. Agrawal, a City College of New York civil engineering professor, the average number of bridge hits has remained steady statewide for the past seven years.

Truck drivers appeared to ignore "ample signs" at the parkway overpasses on Long Island, Agrawal said.

The problem is worst in four counties: Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Erie. In many cases, the same bridges were hit repeatedly -- 32 bridges in Westchester, Nassau and Erie counties account for 44 percent of all strikes in the state since 1993, the study showed.

The number of bridges hit on Long Island's parkways dipped last year, to 43 from 51 in 2010, Pearson said. But bridge strikes on the LIE increased to six last year from two in 2010.

Department of Transportation crews are to close the LIE between exits 61 and 63 Thursday night for what is to be three nights of work to repair the Waverly Avenue overpass in Holtsville. When a truck and trailer carrying construction equipment hit the bridge on July 18, the steel girder cracked in two places, requiring about $40,000 in repairs, officials said.

Repairing the Carlls Straight Path bridge over the LIE in Dix Hills after it was hit in March cost $20,000 just in labor, officials said.

All overpasses along the LIE meet or exceed the 14-foot federal minimum clearance for interstate highways, according to the DOT. New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law sets 13.5 feet as the maximum legal vehicle height.

Panel studying problem

In 2009, then-Gov. David A. Paterson's administration created a task force that includes police and transportation officials, with representatives from Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut, New York City and the trucking, mapping and insurance industries. It is to make recommendations to the state later this year.

"We look forward to reviewing the task force's report and its recommendations," state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said Wednesday.

The DOT seeks reimbursement of repair costs from trucking firms' insurance companies. It has recovered more than $1.2 million from 2007 through 2011, has another $654,262 ready to be processed and about $800,000 being negotiated, according to the DOT.

Trucking firms also must pay for any towing and cleanup, which can reach tens of thousands of dollars, said Sgt. Wallace Gray of the Long Island-based Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit of State Police.

"Apart from fines, it's costly to a driver -- they're losing time," Gray said of truckers who end up on a parkway.

A bridge inspector is called immediately after a truck strike and parkways can be closed for hours, particularly if the vehicle has to be unloaded before it can be moved, he said. If an investigation is warranted, the truck may be impounded.

Gray and others said most trucks that enter parkways are driven from other states by drivers who may be unfamiliar with the area and, despite signs, aren't aware that trucks are prohibited on parkways.

Police, state officials and representatives of the trucking industry cite the advent of GPS technology as worsening the problem. "The number one reason I get from the truck drivers: 'I'm following my GPS,' " said Sgt. Thomas Fuller, who has overseen the State Police commercial vehicle unit in Albany for nine years.

Solutions in technology

Basic retail GPS systems don't identify routes that prohibit trucks. A more expensive commercial vehicle system does make that distinction, officials said.

Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association and a member of the state task force, said the group is considering additional signage measures, such as painting "No Trucks" on road surfaces at parkway on ramps.

Since drivers already pass warning signs, high-tech options also are being reviewed, she said. One system uses infrared or laser equipment to detect an over-height vehicle approaching a parkway on-ramp and sets off large blinking electronic warning sign or sends alerts to drivers via email, mobile phone text or over a truckers' CB radio channel.

"While technology has contributed to the problem," Adams said of GPS, "I think ultimately technological improvements will give us the greatest likelihood of influencing driver behavior."

A state brochure for truck drivers warns of penalties and urges drivers not to rely on GPS units or online mapping services. It's available at truck stops, and is posted on the DOT and trucking industry websites.

"When you consider the tens of thousands of trucks operating a day on Long Island, most do a good job and stay on the routes where they belong," Pearson said.

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