Truckers fear impact of PennDOT plan to lower weight restrictions on bridges
By Bobby Kerlik
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, 11:50 p.m.
Weight restrictions on about 2,000 Pennsylvania bridges add up to 300 miles on some trips to transport Jeannette-based Elliott Group's heavy compressors and turbines, driving up costs, a company official says.
An imminent PennDOT plan to slap restrictions on 1,000 more deteriorating bridges, possibly the Liberty Bridge, Downtown, will hurt business even more, said Gene O'Sullivan, chief financial officer of Elliot Group.
“We're really in a critical situation in this state. We ship very heavy loads,” said O'Sullivan. “We're already in a difficult situation now. We have to send things north to go south. We're a Pennsylvania manufacturer, and we have to deal with that consistently when we're competing with the rest of the country and the world.”
Western Pennsylvania manufacturers and trucking companies increasingly worry that the state's aging bridges are not being fixed and key bridges will have lower weight limits as early as this month.
The restrictions are part of PennDOT's plan to slow deterioration while lawmakers debate allocating money to fix them.
PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch told the Senate Transportation Committee last week, and the Trib on Wednesday, that the weight limit policy is particularly necessary because the Legislature failed to raise gasoline taxes and motorist fees to fund infrastructure repairs before its summer recess.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, considers PennDOT's weight restriction threat a political ploy to pry more money from lawmakers. He said PennDOT should prioritize which bridges need to be fixed and use some of the $7 billion the state gives the agency.
“If the bridges were in need of weight restrictions, that would be the case before this (bill came up). If they're only posting them now, it's political,” Metcalfe said. “They're already receiving $7 billion a year. Certainly we have bridges that need to be repaired and maintained, but I haven't seen a priority list.”
Schoch fired back, saying lawmakers are kicking the can farther down the road. He said lawmakers received packets in May detailing possibilities if they did not allocate funds to fix the state's aging infrastructure — and the list of bridges potentially facing weight restrictions is online.
“We've done our best to reduce our costs. We can't save our way out of this. ... It's not because I want to do it, and it's not a political ploy. It's engineering science and economic fact,” Schoch said. “Frankly, this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. This has been building for decades.”
Schoch said 2,200 state and locally owned bridges are candidates for weight restrictions, and about half could receive them this month, adding to the 567 state-owned and 1,685 locally owned bridges that are posted. That could mean longer drives for haulers, school buses and emergency vehicles forced to take circuitous routes to do their jobs.
PennDOT is evaluating bridges to restrict, although the agency listed potential candidates, including the Liberty Bridge. The Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, is among those posted, with a limit of 23 tons, or 46,000 pounds.
Said Schoch, “If a farmer has to go on a 10-mile detour around a bridge, is he going to absorb that cost? Of course not. It's going to make products more expensive. There is a cost of doing nothing. You can charge the people to fix the problem or you can let the system degrade even more and let them get charged another way.”
Two weeks ago, Elliott Group transported a 262,000-pound compressor to Louisiana.
“Our shipping people tell us this is one of the most difficult states to operate in,” O'Sullivan said.
Gregg Troian, president of Monaca-based PGT Trucking, said his company operates flatbeds that typically haul heavy steel coils, shingles, drywall, pipe and other cargo. Bridges on interstate highways probably won't be a problem, he said, but making deliveries to jobsites or smaller towns would be.
“We deliver a lot of pipe to Marcellus shale drilling sites. Off of the interstate, any of those bridges could cause significant delays — resulting in reroutes, detours, extending drivers' hours. When we reroute, it's not as simple as going to the next road over,” Troian said.
He chastised lawmakers for failing to pass a spending bill to fix deteriorating bridges.
“Pennsylvania (lawmakers) can't seem to come together to make good decisions. We're based here; we have a lot of non-driver and driver employees here. We're very dissatisfied with state government, the way this thing has been handled,” Trojan said.
The Senate in June passed a $2.5 billion spending plan for roads, bridges and transit needs on a 45-5 vote. The bill would have raised money by lifting a cap on the tax wholesalers pay for gasoline, which likely would mean higher prices at the pump. The bill, sponsored by Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, included higher driver's license and registration fees.
That bill and a smaller House version stalled in the House. House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin blamed the failure on Democrats for abandoning the scaled-down House version.
Democratic spokesman Bill Patton called that claim “ridiculous” since Republicans control both chambers.
Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said most Pennsylvanians depend on truck deliveries for things they eat, wear and use. Circuitous routes add up, he said.
“Will that affect the cost of products? Maybe,” Runk said. “The mileage, the fuel, the driver's time. It becomes a huge economic problem, and it's a safety issue. We don't want to knock a bridge down.”
The issue has captured the attention of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.
“Our goal is to work through the process to have a bill introduced in the fall session,” said Barbara McNees, president of the chamber, which advocated for the Senate version. “There's certain things government must do, and infrastructure is one of government's responsibilities.”
Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or email@example.com.
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