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16 Alle-Kiski bridges among 1,000 in state with new weight limits

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 1:41 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The bridge on Pleasantville Road in Harrison that crosses Little Bull Creek has a new weight limit of 30 tons that was posted on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013.

PennDOT this week slapped new or more stringent weight restrictions on about 1,000 bridges statewide, including 16 in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The move is the first tangible by-product of the state Legislature's inability in June to pass a comprehensive transportation bill.

The failed bill would have allocated between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for infrastructure repairs in the general fund budget.

But without that funding, PennDOT is regulating traffic to slow the wear and tear on bridges it deems structurally deficient.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Mc-Keesport, whose district includes a portion of the Alle-Kiski Valley, projects the added weight limits will hinder private enterprise as shipping costs increase with extra miles incurred on detours. He estimates that 65,000 private contracting jobs for statewide repairs were struck down with the transportation bill.

“Not only would this bill have had people working, it's about protecting the people you represent,” he said. “How are the people who voted against it going to look at themselves in the mirror if a bridge collapses and someone dies?”

Several lawmakers say transportation remains the fall session's undisputed top priority. Legislators return to Harrisburg on Sept. 23 and will have until mid-December to reach a resolution.

Some are optimistic. Others, like state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, are not.

“Despite the significant pressure to get this done, I put it at about 20 percent,” Ferlo said. “I just don't see how this can continue to go unaddressed, but I said that months ago. And look where we are now.”

A House divided

Despite passing through the Senate with nearly unanimous support, the bipartisan transportation bill never passed the state House this summer.

Most House Republicans, like state Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, opposed the bill's provision that would have lifted the cap on the state's oil franchise tax.

Several House Democrats predicted the lift would raise gas prices by five to 10 cents per gallon.

Evankovich believes that figure to be closer to 29 cents, which would have given Pennsylvania one of the highest gas taxes in the nation.

Rather than raising taxes at the pump, Evankovich said the state should reallocate its existing sources of revenue to fund infrastructure.

“I think we need to ask ourselves where our priorities should really lie,” he said. “With 82 percent of our general fund budget going to education and welfare, we should consider taking some of that money and using it to fund infrastructure. We don't need to raise taxes to get this done.”

State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, sits on the Senate transportation committee and was heavily involved in crafting the transportation bill. When it passed through the Senate, the bill designated $2 billion for bridge and road repair. The bill was later amended in the House and that figure dropped to about $1.5 billion.

“I don't even think the $2 billion is enough to take care of what needs to be done,” Vulakovich said. “The $1.5 billion doesn't even begin to cover it.

“I'm not a proponent of raising taxes, whatsoever. But this is something that needs to get done, and this is the only way to do it.”

Several Democrats say the opposing viewpoints between Evankovich and Vulakovich are indicative of how conservatism in the House differs from the Senate.

With an election year fast approaching, Ferlo said House Republicans are solely focused on placating their constituents by indiscriminately voting against any legislation that raises taxes.

“This has everything to do with self-interest politics,” he said. “This is where the Corbett administration needs to step up and get their party on board to get this done, and I'm not so sure that it will.”

Pyle, White lament restrictions

Some legislators like state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, and state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, have already seen the adverse effects of weight limitations in their districts.

In Pyle's 60th Legislative District, a power station situated along the Route 422 bridge near Shelocta has been receiving about two-thirds of its daily coal since trucks have been detoured around the bridge.

Pyle said the weight restriction's effects could be so economically damaging that he's hoping to form a public-private partnership to rehabilitate the bridge before the Legislature passes a transportation bill.

For White, Senate transportation committee vice chairman, coal trucks passing through his hometown of Indiana have been displaced from their normal routes across the Route 422 and Route 119 bridges. Both are federal highways.

Now, they travel on municipal roads through the heart of town.

“It's flat out dangerous,” White said, “and it's bad for our roads. Public safety should always be our top priority, and I think we're all coming back reinvigorated to see this through.”

Weight limitations were either added or increased on 16 Alle-Kiski Valley bridges. Five are in Armstrong County, eight in Allegheny County and three in Butler County. No new restrictions have been placed on bridges in the Valley's Westmoreland portion.

For the bill to pass in the fall, according to Ferlo, House representatives must set aside their ideologies to arrive at a pragmatic solution.

“It's our job to govern, not make popular decisions,” he said. “We have to do what's right for the people, and it's not all about having your name put on a bridge.

“If things keep going the way they are, there won't be any bridges left to do that.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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