Truckers hitting low bridges costs New York millions as crashes increase

ALBANY — The collision caused the truck to levitate in the air as a piece of equipment attached to it — a $300,000 boom lift — fell off the back, destroyed.

George Gizzi, 57, of Colonie, was living every truck driver’s worst nightmare. The cargo he was towing hit the Sitterly Road Bridge along the Northway in Clifton Park, bringing traffic to a three-hour standstill and necessitating repairs costing millions of dollars. In the ensuing weeks, the shutdown of the damaged bridge would cause gridlock on the local roads it serviced.


The wreck occurred on April 14, 2021, a date that had originally been a cause for celebration: It was Gizzi’s birthday.

But his unlucky mishap was not unique. Last year, trucks and other vehicles smashed into overpass bridges in New York at least 344 times — more than any other year in the previous decade, according to data collected by the state Department of Transportation and the Thruway Authority.

Collisions with bridges have been on the rise since 2016 in New York, which is home to some of the lowest bridges in the country.

“The increased frequency of bridge strikes is likely caused by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the growing use of non-commercial GPS systems and changes in traffic flow and driver behavior since the pandemic,” said Joseph Morrissey, spokesman for the New York Department of Transportation. “Increased awareness of the issue has also led to more comprehensive reporting.”

The crashes have caused injuries, chemical spills and traffic jams. Most of the low bridges are owned by the state. The state Department of Transportation has spent $42 million in recent years to repair bridges after strikes and prevent hits. The Thruway Authority has spent a part of its $319 million bridge capital budget addressing crashes.


If repairs are needed for a bridge, then a town, county or state transportation agency may front the costs. In some cases, an insurance company may cover a portion of the repairs, according to Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communications at the Insurance Information Institute. Though she couldn’t provide an example of when that has occurred.

When renovations hit the multi-million dollar mark, it’s more than likely that taxpayers will end up shouldering much of the load. Other costs associated with the crashes can be the expense to send emergency services to the sites, especially in places where the strikes are a constant reoccurrence.

The state set aside nearly $30 million — $25 million from a 2019 initiative started by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and smaller amounts from the Department of Transportation — to undertake eight projects that officials say will reduce the state’s bridge strike count.

The department has so far completed one of those projects. Nevertheless, the Department said New York’s bridges are safe because they are regularly inspected.


“The New York State Department of Transportation has one of the most comprehensive and rigorous bridge inspection programs in the nation. Bridges are inspected after every reported collision,” Morrissey said. “The state also requires all highway bridges to be inspected at least every two years, if not sooner, and is one of the few states in the nation that requires bridge inspection teams to be headed by licensed professional engineers who have undergone specialized training.  Bridges that are deemed unsafe are closed.”

The Department of Transportation and Thruway Authority collect information on collisions with bridges from a variety of sources and their data may reflect an undercount of incidents in some cases, according to state officials. But their data are the best window available into where bridge collisions are happening most often in the state.

The Times Union analyzed 10 years of data on bridge collisions from the Department of Transportation and the Thruway Authority.

The crashes with low bridges happen most often on the Hutchinson Parkway, followed by the Southern and Northern State Parkways on Long Island, according to the data. Bridges in New York City, Hempstead, New Rochelle, Rye and Oysterbay endure the most collisions.


“The impact of bridge strikes can be significant depending on the road and the time of day,” said Beau Duffy, spokesman for the New York State Police. “Crashes on the downstate parkways where there are heavier traffic volumes, especially during rush hour, may require more manpower to handle lane closures while debris is cleaned and the bridge is inspected.”


In the Capital Region, the bridges struck most often are the Glenridge Road railroad bridge in Glenville and two Thruway overpasses in Guilderland, the data shows.

According to four neighbors who live near the Glenride Road bridge, state data undercounts the number of crashes on their street, which they estimate to be more than 100 in the past several years. Bob and Sue Vielkind, who live just up the street from the bridge, remembered three crashes in one day in 2020, they said. Not every crash is reported to the state.


“It sounds like a big can opener being peeled back times one hundred,” said Connie Cartwright, another neighbor whose home is closest to the bridge. “I’ve got a ringside seat.”

Each crash can close Glenridge Road for about three to four hours to clear the damaged vehicle and any debris. The bridge also must be inspected to ensure the integrity of its structure before the road is reopened.

Drivers that hit bridges in New York are typically not from the state, according to Kendra Hems, president of the Trucking Association of New York. They’ll often use navigation systems like Waze or Google Maps, applications that provide them with the most direct routes but don’t alert them to low bridges or some parkways where commercial vehicles aren’t allowed. The online applications’ shortfalls are not always known to out-of-state truckers.

The State Police said that drivers who hit bridges, fail to obey a traffic control device alerting them to a low bridge or enter parkways where they are not allowed can be hit with a variety of citations depending on the specific situation.

A truck slammed into the New Scotland Road rail trail bridge in Bethlehem's Slingerlands neighborhood May 22, 2021. It was the second time in two days that a truck hit the low-slung bridge, which once carried trains over New Scotland Road.
A truck slammed into the New Scotland Road rail trail bridge in Bethlehem's Slingerlands neighborhood May 22, 2021. It was the second time in two days that a truck hit the low-slung bridge, which once carried trains over New Scotland Road.

Most often, collisions with low bridges in New York are caused by tractor-trailers and delivery trucks striking underpasses that are lower than their vehicles or cargo. In some cases, trucks towing excavators, sailboats or even a prefabricated house have slammed into bridges.

Bridges have also been hit by trucks carrying pineapples, watermelons, cabbage, ice cream and plastic garbage cans. The data also revealed two incidents resulting in fuel spills in 2020.

In January 2019,  a “runaway cruise ship” collided with two bridges in Albany and Watervliet that span the Hudson River, according to the data. The ship, along with several other vessels, broke loose from moorings amid rising waters and ice jams during a rapid thaw. The vessels were eventually secured by tugboats. The boats caused a few bridges to close to traffic during commuting hours.


Sometimes the strikes can be catastrophic. On a cloudy evening in July 1994, the 23-year-old driver of a propane truck fell asleep at the wheel before hitting a bridge column in White Plains. He was ejected from the vehicle and died of blunt trauma injuries. The propane tank fractured during the crash, starting a fire that engulfed the surrounding neighborhood.


That incident led to roughly 19 residents and four firefighters being injured; three houses were destroyed and eight others were damaged.

Another deadly accident occurred in Syracuse in 2010, when a double-decker bus collided with a low railroad bridge, flipping on its side and killing four people and critically injuring several others.

That was the most recent catastrophic crash, but some worry the next major disaster is just around the corner.


Locally, Albany County has allocated more than $3 million to replace the Slingerlands Rail Trail Bridge on New Scotland Road after trucks repeatedly slammed into it. In Clifton Park, the state has allocated $6.5 million for an ongoing project to replace the Sitterly Road Bridge, which has been relying on a temporary bridge since it was reopened a year ago after being closed for more than three weeks. Both spots are notorious for crashes.

The most infamous, perhaps, is the Glenridge Road bridge in Glenville. There, officials have spent an estimated $50,000 in the past 18 months responding to truck-related incidents.


“It’s just one of those things now where it’s almost become like comedy,” said Glenville police Chief Stephen V. Janik. “People love to get on social media and post pictures of just another day in Glenville at the bridge.”

Chris Koetzle, the town’s supervisor, understands Janik’s discontent.

“It’s frustrating because so many people think that we’re not doing anything,” he said. “And this has consumed a lot of our time over the years and a lot of our efforts.”

The 10-foot, 11-inch high railroad-owned bridge is one of the most complicated to fix. The rail that sits on top of it belongs to a company that hasn’t pursued raising it because of the potential multimillion-dollar cost, according to Koetzle.

Although the roadway belongs to the state, the government can’t fund the project, he said. A number of solutions have been proposed to quell the strikes — from closing the road to truck traffic to planting overhanging trees with branches that would alert truckers to an approaching low overpass  — but nothing that’ll stop the accidents for good.


This summer the state Department of Transportation is scheduled to begin constructing a westbound truck turnaround near the bridge on Glenridge Road. Next year it will install an infrared laser height detection system that will warn drivers of vehicles that are too tall to make it through the tight underpass. The system will trigger a timer and overheight messages if it detects a vehicle that is too large.

Another potential solution is educating drivers, said Hems. “It’s the three E’s: education, enforcement, engineering,” she said.

Enforcement means fining truckers for hitting bridges, Hems added. In Glenville, truckers are usually issued vehicle citations as well as a summons for violating town code.

But the rules can be difficult to enforce, Janik said, especially for drivers that are from another state.


“If somebody is from Ohio and they’re a cross country trucker, I don’t really believe they’re going to be coming to Town Court on their summons at 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon,” Janik said.

After finding themselves on a dangerous road, truckers might be inclined to call 911 for assistance. But the fear of being fined can make them second-guess that choice, said Sala Harris, 30, Saratoga Springs resident and truck driver.

“It’s like, damn, I don’t know what to do,” he explained. “If I call the cops now, I might get in trouble and get the fine. If I hurry up and get off this road, then I’ll be good.”

Early in his career, Harris found himself assessing that scenario but was able to turn around on his own to avoid striking a bridge. He’s since become a yard jockey, retiring from long-distance trips.

Developers across the globe are producing technologies to curb the accidents, using simulated waterfalls to project deterring messages and computer vision to send personalized alerts to drivers telling them to get off at the nearest exit. Hems said she’d been in discussion with a couple of companies.


One of them is E-SMART, a business that creates innovative software. One of their products automatically immobilizes trucks that come within 750 feet of a bridge through geofencing technology paired with one of their systems.

Jean-Philippe Roberge, the company’s vice president of operations, said he presented his product to Hems and other members of the association but never heard back.

“We didn’t get a lot of calls,” he said. “If people were really serious about fixing this, we have a solution.” The company’s technology is being used in every state except Alaska.

“People think it’s only the Northeast but there’s bridges everywhere,” he said.


Still, that solution could require drivers to turn around, a feat that might prove to be difficult or unsafe on some roads.

A view of the Sitterly Road bridge that goes over Interstate 90, seen here on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Clifton Park, N.Y. Repair work is being done on the bridge after it was damaged last year when a truck pulling a boom lift hit the bridge. 
A view of the Sitterly Road bridge that goes over Interstate 90, seen here on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Clifton Park, N.Y. Repair work is being done on the bridge after it was damaged last year when a truck pulling a boom lift hit the bridge.

Paul Buckowski/Times Union

Before Gizzi smashed into the bridge and lost his job last year, he’d been driving for 25 years across the country, hauling boom lifts hundreds of times.

He said he doesn’t know how it happened. He picked up the equipment in Clifton Park and then drove south on the Northway. The Sitterly Road bridge was marked and he had traveled that route many times and believed his cargo could comfortably pass under the bridge.


But Gizzi also wasn’t aware that the boom’s lift had raised, exceeding height restrictions and leading to the collision that caused widespread detours and travel delays as the southbound Northway lanes had to be closed when the bridge absorbed the hard strike. In the Clifton Park area, the temporary closure of the Sitterly Road bridge caused additional delays for several weeks because it is a busy crossing.

Initially, he thought he’d run something over. After 30 seconds had passed, he realized that the equipment had smashed into the structure, permanently damaging three of the steel girders.

Emergency responders and police rushed to the scene to survey the damage. Officials closed three southbound lanes.

Laborers worked overnight to ensure the bridge was moderately functioning for commuters the following morning, although lane closures remained. Later that week, six temporary beams were erected to support the structure connecting the towns of Halfmoon and Clifton Park.

The permanent bridge, set to be completed this year, will stand 16 feet 7.5 inches, which officials believe will prevent another strike.

Luckily, Gizzi’s trailer didn’t slam into the bridge and he was not seriously injured. Traveling at roughly 65 miles per hour, his injuries could have been severe, he said.

Gizzi noted that no other motorists were injured but he was sorry for the severe traffic delays that it caused.

“I’m sure there’s people who hate me, but they didn’t get hurt,” he said. “And that’s the biggest thing that I cared about.”

Gizzi was ticketed by state troopers for striking an overpass with a commercial vehicle but still hasn’t paid a fine because the matter is pending.

The crash continues to haunt Gizzi. After the incident, a new company that he now works for reached out to him. He continues to transport boom lifts, sometimes with tears in his eyes, he said.

On occasion, when he’s about to go under a bridge, he’ll pull over and triple-check the height of the equipment.

“It’s something you’ll never shake,” he said. “It changes you as a person.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much money New York has spent in recent years on repairing and upgrading bridge infrastructure.