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Green Infrastructure: Another Unfunded Mandate?

Green Infrastructure: Another Unfunded Mandate? June 5, 2024
Replacing a washed-out culvert that closed County Route 11 in Bolton to outbound traffic for more than six weeks is expected to cost $1.5 million. Photo courtesy Warren County.
Replacing a washed-out culvert that closed County Route 11 in Bolton to outbound traffic for more than six weeks is expected to cost $1.5 million. Photo courtesy Warren County.

With increasing frequency, the extreme weather traced to climate change collides with antiquated, obsolete infrastructure. A 2008 report titled “Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation” by the National Research Council (NRC) warned, “Infrastructure pushed beyond the range for which it was designed (will) become stressed and fail.” Now, sixteen years later, culverts throughout Warren County must be replaced and enlarged – in some cases, they may even be replaced by bridges – and at considerable expense to local taxpayers.

Most culverts in Warren County are four to five decades old. They were not engineered to manage the torrents of water associated with extreme weather, and many are starting to deteriorate.

Information about how many culverts must be replaced, and at what cost, is expected to become known once

an assessment of the condition and capacity of all county-owned culverts is completed this summer, said Kevin Hajos, Warren County’s Superintendent of Public Works,

According to Hajos, Warren County is responsible for roughly 1,500 culverts.

“The assessment will give us a baseline picture of the inventory, of the location, size and condition of each culvert, as well as their histories: which ones we’ve had issues with,” said Hajos. “We’ll also look at the watersheds in which they’re located, in order to better understand whether they have a sufficient capacity to handle the water they’re likely to receive.”

Any new culvert installed by the county – or by the towns, for that matter – must meet the 2024 standards for right-sized or resilient infrastructure recently promulgated by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We understand the need for the new standards,” said Hajos. “In the past 16 years, we’ve seen once-in-500-year storms every few years. We definitely need an infrastructure that can withstand those impacts.”

“But,” Hajos added, “while I don’t have an issue with being told to replace an 8-foot pipe with a 25-foot bridge, I do have a problem with the fact that there’s no money for it.”

Warrensburg Supervisor Kevin Geraghty, Chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said he was among those concerned about the impacts of replacing infrastructure on the county’s finances.

The lack of funding to replace the culverts should surprise no one, given the paucity of federal and state funds to rebuild local infrastructure. 

According to Hajos, New York State programs, such as Bridge New York (80% of which is funded by the federal government) and Culvert New York, lack the capacity to fund every eligible project in Warren County, let alone New York State.

In October, 2019, when heavy rains and 70-mph winds caused flooding and power outages throughout most of New York State, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded Warren County 75% of the costs of its repairs. (Although, as Hajos has noted, nearly five years passed before the county received all the money it was owed.) But when damage is localized, costs rarely meet the threshold required by FEMA to release funds to the state and municipalities.

Projects that cannot be funded through the county’s capital reserve fund or through its general budget must be financed by the sale of bonds, as the repairs to roads damaged by the December, 2023 storms were.

Replacing a washed-out culvert that closed County Route 11 in Bolton to outbound traffic for more than six weeks is expected to cost $1.5 million.

“We couldn’t leave those roads in an impassable state,” said Hajos. “But we’ll be paying for those repairs for the next five years.”

In total, the December 23 rainstorm will cost Warren County approximately $4.5 million, said County Administrator John Taflan.

Both New York State and the federal governments have appropriated funds to make roads, bridges, and highways resilient enough to withstand extreme weather, but it is not yet clear how those funds will be allocated.

Local governments are responsible for maintaining 50% of New York’s bridges and 87% of its roads; without federal and state aid, 100% of the costs of rehabilitating that critical infrastructure falls upon the shoulders of local property taxpayers.

Hajos said he feared that if funding is not available to upgrade infrastructure to make it more climate resilient, many localities will neglect to do it.

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