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Bridge fund raided to pay for office supplies

Rochester, N.Y. -- Billions of dollars of state taxpayer money meant for road and bridge repair is being diverted to pay for travel expenses, bottled water, and office supplies for state workers, according to an audit obtained by 13WHAM News.

Meanwhile, nearly a third of bridges in Monroe County are in need of structural repairs that are being delayed with an even larger price tag down the road.

If this was your childs report card, you wouldnt be happy, said Rocky Moretti of TRIP, a transportation research group.

A closer look under area bridges is an eye opener.

Each day, 60,000 cars cross over the Erie Canal in Perinton on a 60-year-old bridge that is braced with wooden beams.

The decking is crumbling, exposing rebar underneath. A recent inspection rated the bridge as structurally deficient earning a grade of 3.7 out of 7.

Anything below a 5 is considered in need of major repair.

The lowest rated bridge in Monroe County is also heavily traveled by more than 60 thousand motorists a day. It carries 490 over Marsh Road in Pittsford. It too is braced with supports.

People just assume that the bridge is in Pittsford so its Pittsfords responsibility, said highway superintendent Paul Schenkel. Were monitoring it. Were anxious to make sure that progress is being made.

The bridge is past the typical life span of 50 years, as are one-third of the bridges in Monroe County. The responsibility for rebuilding it falls on New York state.

In fact, the state collects billions of dollars in taxes and fees every year to pay for these road and bridge projects.

Suzanne Fitch occasionally uses the bridge. We caught up with her filling up at a nearby gas station with her eye on gas prices, which are edging up.

I dont drive as freely as I used to, she admitted. I sometimes think before I go a long distance -- how much is it going to cost for gas?

New York tacks several fuel taxes on each gallon of gas, including a surcharge of eight cents a gallon for a special highway and bridge fund. A $10 fee on license plates, a corporate energy tax, and a 6 percent tax on car rentals all go into the fund.

The money is supposed to be used to fund road and bridge capital projects. Yet a state audit found much of the money went to routine maintenance. Some was siphoned off to pay for salaries, phone bills, travel by state employees and even for office supplies and bottled water.

For every dollar collected in taxes and fees, just 22 cents went to bridge and highway projects.

I think its terrible. Im very adamant about that, said Fitch.

If things are ear marked for certain programs and theyre not being put towards it then its not right, said Jeff Archer.

This unfortunately is the way things are done now, said Ken Warner of UNICON, a group of construction trades and contracting businesses. If there is a pot of money sitting round people are likely to take it and use it for something else.

Sen. Ted OBrien (D-Rochester) has co-sponsored a bill to stop the raiding of the dedicated highway and bridge fund.

We have this dedicated fund for a purpose, he said. Its time to use these funds for what they are originally intended to do.

Yet making up for years of infrastructure neglect will be costly.

As the system continues to age, the cost of trying to maintain it is increasing, said Moretti. Thats because the repairs that are needed are more complex and costly.

The canal bridge in Perinton is a good example. In 1992 the cost of repairs was estimated to be $2.3 million dollars. Eight years and two inspections later, in 2010, that cost ballooned to an estimated $12.3 million.

Now, in 2014, there is no new estimate available. But taxpayers will likely be paying even more.

 
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