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PennDOT to catch up on big-ticket projects on roads, bridges

| Sunday, June 22, 2014, 8:44 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Crews from HDR Engineering and the Sofis Co. conduct a bridge inspection underneath Bellevue Road along the Parkway North in Ross Sunday, June 22, 2014.

PennDOT officials say money from the state's transportation law will enable them to catch up on deferred maintenance of roads and bridges.

Spending on regular maintenance will increase 17 percent year-over-year to $897 million in fiscal year 2015, the first full year the law will be in effect. Big-ticket projects, such as road and bridge rehabilitations, will increase nearly 16 percent to $2.16 billion.

Some repairs that were delayed for years will cost more, officials said.

PennDOT District 11 Executive Dan Cessna, whose territory covers Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, said regular maintenance in Allegheny County will increase 10 percent in the coming year.

“You could have always done more, but we've been able to maintain a minimum level (of maintenance) to keep the system together. We don't have state highways that are impossible to traverse because of potholes,” Cessna said.

Cessna said the maintenance budget was strained because the state lacked the money to repave roads as soon as it should have, forcing crews to do more pothole patching and crack sealing.

Bridge maintenance includes washing, painting and joint sealing. The state has paid particular attention to bridge repairs in recent years, in step with national concerns about the integrity of bridges after the Interstate 35W highway bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007.

PennDOT could not afford everything it wanted, Cessna said.

“An example would be the Birmingham Bridge. In theory, that bridge probably should have been painted 10 years ago. Because of rusting, it now has more extensive steel repairs,” Cessna said.

The bridge is slated for a $40 million overhaul, starting this year.

Through March, the state led the nation in the number of structurally deficient bridges with 4,200, down from a peak of 6,034 in 2008, PennDOT officials said. Pennsylvania has the third-largest number of state-maintained bridges in the country.

Act 89, which the Legislature passed in 2013, increases the wholesale gasoline tax and vehicle-related fees. That money goes to PennDOT and mass transit agencies.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Al Biehler, who headed PennDOT for eight years under former Gov. Ed Rendell, said maintaining the transportation system is a constant issue.

“If you don't do regular maintenance — patching potholes, sealing cracks — it ends up costing a lot more to fix it. It extends the life, but you fall into a situation where you're doing more and more maintenance,” Biehler said. “Because of the backlog of maintenance problems, we didn't think we should look at any major widenings and instead shifted resources to rehabilitation.”

Biehler pointed to a 2008 incident with the Birmingham Bridge when a rocker bearing failed — in part because debris clogged expansion joints, allowing a section of it to drop about eight inches.

“Making sure expansion joints are clear has a lot to do with the ability to extend the life of a bridge,” Biehler said.

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said Act 89 money should “make a huge difference.”

“Anyone that owns a house knows it's critical to keep up with routine maintenance,” he said. “If you let it go, it's going to cost more later.”

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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