Butler County drivers brace for weight-limit impact

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 12:15 a.m.

School officials, government representatives and motorists are bracing for lower weight limits that PennDOT will place on 18 bridges in Butler County in the next six months.

“In the city, a detour might be a matter of three or four minutes. In more rural areas, much more time can be lost driving around bridges,” said Brenda Collins, transportation director for the Butler Area School District, which each day transports about 7,000 students on 124 buses to 14 schools.

A total of 1,000 structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania are slated to have reduced weight limits.

PennDOT is taking this step because of the Legislature's failure to approve a transportation funding package, which makes the department's ability to repair or replace these bridges uncertain, said Deborah L. Casadei, a spokeswoman for PennDOT's District 10. The lower weight limits will help extend the service life of these deteriorating bridges.

PennDOT announced Tuesday that the weight limit on the Connoquenessing Creek bridge on McCalmont Road in Butler Township has been lowered to 26 tons or 29 tons for combination loads, primarily tractor trailers.

“This will be one of the first Butler County bridges to have its weight limit lowered,” Casadei said.

The Route 308 bridge over Muddy Creek in Clay now has a 30-ton limit, or 40 tons for combination loads. The Route 2002 bridge along Herman Road over Coal Run in Butler Township got a 33-ton limit or 40 tons for combination loads.

Local and county officials and some businesses say they're not happy with state government and the restrictions, which they say would complicate school bus routes and garbage removal, and would be bad for business.

“There are garbage trucks and school buses that use that road,” said Ed Kirkwood, Butler Township's manager, referring to McCalmont Road. “I do not know what impact this will have.”

If heavier vehicles are rerouted because of the weight limit, Kirkwood said, the detours will be major.

“It would create a multiple-mile detour. It would be at least five miles, possibly more,” he said.

Under the new weight restriction, an ambulance, mail truck and most garbage trucks will be allowed on the bridge. The limit could, according to PennDOT, make it unlikely that cement trucks, dump trucks, salt spreaders and some fire engines could use it.

“Changes on weight limits will probably affect us. It depends on how much they drop the weight limit,” Collins said.

Last year, access for school buses to the Penn Street bridge in downtown Butler was eliminated because the weight limit was lowered, which Collins said cut off easy access to several neighborhoods. It is the third bridge in the city of Butler that school buses can't cross because of reduced weight limits.

The Butler County bridges on PennDOT's list are located primarily in Butler and in northern and more rural sections of the county. No weight limit changes are planned for bridges in the heavily populated southern part of the county.

Dilapidated bridges can hurt businesses, particularly trucking companies, officials said.

“There could be a lot of rerouting because of this, especially in northern sections of Butler County,” said Alexis Benson, who works at the John Dean Clark Trucking Co., in Butler, a heavy hauling company that moves excavators and cranes — often over long distances.

PennDOT owns eight of the Butler County bridges slated for weight restrictions. The other 10 belong either to the county or municipalities.

District 10's five-county region of Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Indiana and Jefferson counties will have weight restrictions on 45 bridges.

Pennsylvania has more structurally deficient bridges than any other state, according to PennDOT.

The Legislature failed before its summer recess to raise gasoline taxes and motorist fees to pay for infrastructure repairs.

Lower weight limits frustrate municipal managers and county officials.

“All the General Assembly is doing is kicking the can down the road. If we want to feel safe driving on roads, we have to pay for it,” said Kirkwood of Butler Township.

Bill McCarrier, chair of Butler County Commissioners, said state officials have to come up with funding to fix bridges. Because fuel efficiency has improved, taxing gasoline by the gallon has become obsolete, he said.

“Either the tax needs to be raised or we should tax by mileage, as some states are now doing,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944.

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