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Turnpike planning called into question over demolition of recently built bridges

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Traffic passes across and underneath the Eisaman Road bridge in Hempfield, at milepost 69 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on January 17, 2013. The bridge was rebuilt in 1997 in a $2 million project and then was torn down 13 years later. The new Eisaman Road bridge was built about 100 yards away for $3.5 million. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Traffic passes underneath the Eisaman Road bridge in Hempfield at about milepost 69 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on January 17, 2013. The bridge was rebuilt in 1997 in a $2 million project and then was torn down 13 years later and the new Eisaman Road bridge was built about 100 yards away for $3.5 million. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

The Pennsylvania Turnpike demolished six bridges it built less than 17 years ago, even though they were designed to last for 75 years, and plans to tear down an 18-year-old span this year as part of ongoing reconstruction of America's oldest superhighway.

“This may have been unfortunate, but the bridge replacements were essential,” turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said.

A transportation expert and a Hempfield supervisor whose farm straddles the highway questioned whether planners should have thought ahead.

Critics have long complained about the Turnpike Commission's spending practices. A state grand jury is investigating its spending.

Turnpike officials dispute that the agency wasted money on the replacement projects, including one in Westmoreland County.

Gary Graham, the agency's assistant chief engineer for design, said the turnpike built the seven bridges during the mid-1990s for “safety reasons.”

They replaced deteriorated spans that went up in 1938 and 1939 — when the life expectancy for a new bridge was about 50 years.

The projects cost a combined $9.1 million, turnpike records show. The turnpike spent $13.8 million to replace the bridges after less than a quarter of their useful life expectancy in projects completed over the past seven years, records show.

It figures to spend more than $1 million on a seventh project this year. In addition to Westmoreland County, two bridges are in Somerset County, two are in Bedford County and two are in Cumberland County.

A plan to rebuild and widen the highway “wasn't on the radar yet” when the turnpike did the initial replacement on the bridges, Graham said.

In Hempfield, crews tore down the crumbling Eisaman Road bridge and replaced it with a span that opened in 1997, at a cost of $1.6 million. It stretched across four lanes.

The extensive rebuilding of the highway started two years later, with early work focused on replacing pavement, DeFebo said. Officials later included widening the highway to six lanes in each section it rebuilt, he said.

To date, 102 miles of the turnpike have been rebuilt at a cost of more than $2 billion, DeFebo said. The agency's debt jumped from $2.6 billion to $8.3 billion since 2007, forcing it to borrow money and raise tolls annually.

Work began between the Irwin and New Stanton interchanges in 2006, with $110 million in improvements planned. The old Eisaman Road bridge remained open as construction began on one less than 100 yards away. The new $2 million bridge spans six lanes with a wider median and shoulders.

The new Eisaman Road bridge opened in May 2010. Crews demolished the 13-year-old one a month later.

Tom Logan, a Hempfield supervisor whose Logan Family Farms in Hempfield is split by the turnpike, thinks the agency should have had “enough foresight to build a bridge that could last for at least the next 50 years.”

Logan questions the value of the widening project, saying the amount of traffic that passes his farm does not appear to justify the additional lanes or expense.

Martin Pietrucha, director of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State University, said it's easy to question why millions of dollars went down the drain.

“But it's probably not as simple as just saying, ‘What the heck were these knuckleheads thinking?'

“It could have been that someone was asleep at the wheel, but I'd like to think that was not the case and the (widening project) wasn't even a glimmer in someone's eyes when the bridges were originally replaced,” Pietrucha said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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