It’s tiny – by most standards – a span that can be crossed in about 12 steps.
But as little as it is, the small, deteriorating Erie Street span in the Village of Lancaster, just east of Court Street, took center stage Thursday in a downtown Buffalo courtroom and officially was declared a bridge by State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Troutman.
That means the Town of Lancaster is responsible for repairing the 11-foot-long bridge that is about 5 feet above Spring Creek, and is down to one lane of travel with a hole covered by a heavy steel plate. Repair estimates have hovered between $30,000 and $40,000.
In fact, the town must forever maintain the bridge, and if it needs replacing for an estimated $250,000, it must handle that, as well.
In the end, the Village of Lancaster won its battle after taking the town to court in what had become a huge fight between village and town leaders who argued over whose responsibility it was to maintain, repair and ultimately replace the bridge – or culvert.
The Lancaster bridge/culvert drama is one that is playing out in many local communities facing similar disagreements among themselves and determining who is really responsible for such spans.
Thursday’s decision by Troutman settled Lancaster’s dilemma, for now. She ruled in favor of the village, which sued the town, accusing it of failing to take responsibility to maintain and fix the bridge, which is believed to date to around 1916.
Now, the town has been told the span is a bridge, and not a culvert as it maintained, and that town officials must repair the bridge. Earlier this week, Town Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli said the town would start emergency repairs this week, regardless of Thursday’s legal outcome in court.
Troutman wanted to know how the town identifies bridges whose repairs are covered by a townwide bridge levy that is assessed. Village lawyers said the town bridge levy totals about $135,000 for 2013.
The attorney representing the town, Charles W. Malcomb, gave a somewhat vague answer about past practice and town records and noted that the levy money is used for structures identified as bridges.
Malcomb repeatedly insisted the Erie Street Bridge should be considered a culvert and therefore was the village’s responsibility.
But, in the end, Troutman determined that the Erie Street Bridge was an actual bridge – favoring the village and ruling against the town.
After the court hearing, Malcomb said he was very disappointed with the ruling.
“It’s clear that it has all the hallmarks of a culvert,” he said, adding that perhaps it’s time for state Highway Law to be clarified in terms of responsibility for bridges and culverts.
Village special legal counsel Paul D. Weiss later said in an interview outside the courtroom that the Erie Street Bridge will likely need to be replaced in the next few years at an estimated cost of about $250,000.
Ironically, Weiss noted that the town in 2006 did a complete replacement of the Court Street Bridge at Erie, just about 100 yards away from the one in question.