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PennDOT chief: Without bridge repairs, Pennsylvania likely to add weight limits

| Monday, June 3, 2013, 10:20 p.m.

The fallout from choosing not to repair thousands of Pennsylvania bridges would almost certainly be a sharp increase in the number of weight-limited structures, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said Monday at the International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh.

“We have a large number of bridges in Pennsylvania on the bubble,” Schoch told several hundred industry and government officials in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Schoch is hopeful lawmakers in Harrisburg will pass a Gov. Tom Corbett-backed plan that would generate $5.3 billion in transportation funding over five years.

“We expect this bill to pass,” said Schoch, who will be back in Pittsburgh with Corbett on Friday as part of a statewide publicity blitz to build support for the plan. “We're hopeful something makes it to the governor's desk. There are implications of doing nothing.”

Among those would be imposing weight restrictions.

Today, about 600 state bridges have weight limits. If lawmakers do not pass a spending bill to pay for replacements and repairs, that number could increase to nearly 1,400, Schoch said for the first time. That could lengthen routes and force higher costs on commercial shippers, school districts and others, he said.

“I'm not suggesting we are in a situation where these bridges are unsafe or will collapse,” Schoch said. “But as the secretary, I have to make a decision.”

A steel-truss bridge collapse last month north of Seattle raised concerns about the safety of aging infrastructure around the country. Three people were injured. No one was killed.

The Washington state bridge that fell into the Skagit River was built in 1955. The average age of Pennsylvania's 25,000 state bridges is 51 years, Schoch said.

“So for every new one, there is one that is 75 years old,” he said.

The Washington bridge passed inspections and was not unsafe, Schoch said.

“But it's an indication of the ages of bridges,” he said. “They don't last forever. We have to err on the side of conservatism. We have to lessen the load on those bridges, lessen the likeliness of a collapse.”

Pennsylvania has the third-most state-owned bridges in the country with about 25,000. An additional 6,400 bridges span locally owned roads.

Nearly 4,500 bridges in the state are structurally deficient, according to a March report from PennDOT. It cautions that those bridges are safe but that one or more major components has deteriorated. Over the next two years, PennDOT plans to put contracts out for bid to rebuild more than 600 bridges.

Of the 4,209 bridges in the seven-county Pittsburgh region, 949 are structurally deficient, according to PennDOT. That includes 232 of the 1,180 bridges in Allegheny County.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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