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Bridge restrictions weigh on Westmoreland farmers

Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Bob Smith, 81, milks cows on his New Alexandria farm on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. Smith founded the farm 58 years ago.

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Dairy farmer Bob Smith said he hadn't seen all the details of PennDOT's plan to place new weight restrictions on about 20 structurally deficient bridges in Westmoreland and Fayette counties, but anything that affects his bottom line isn't good news.

“Nothing in farming makes sense anymore,” said Smith, 81, who started his farm in New Alexandria 58 years ago with 16 cows. Today, he has 400. “Expenses have gone up 10 to 20 times, income has gone up four or five times. ... There's no end to it.”

The weight restrictions mean farmers will have to spend more on fuel to travel longer distances, and they'll spend more time away from the farm, according to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, citing insufficient funding, recently announced that it will place or increase weight restrictions on 1,000 structurally deficient bridges, raising the total of state and local bridges that are open, but restricted to lower weights, to more than 3,200. The move is intended to slow the deterioration process.

“We simply can't afford to repair all of these bridges,” PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said.

The weight restrictions could have “pretty serious” marketing consequences, especially for dairy farmers who pay to have their milk hauled to a dairy, said Gary Shepherd, Penn State Cooperative Extension district director. Haulers often “cluster” their routes so they make more than one stop.

“Every other day, that truck is showing up ... or sometimes every day,” he said. “That becomes a major issue.”

Some farmers said they thought they would be exempt from the restrictions under a “local delivery” provision. but PennDOT said that is not the case.

“They are not exempt,” PennDOT District 12 spokeswoman Valerie Petersen said. “It's a safety issue.”

Those who use a certain route repeatedly — even EMS vehicles — will have to apply for a permit. State and local police will enforce the weight limits, oftentimes with help from local residents.

“A lot of people have called with photos of the license plates,” Petersen said.

Hauler John Farmerie said the rates farmers pay to have their milk hauled to dairy will have to go up from the $1.30 per hundred pounds he now charges.

“I could see it going to $1.80, $1.90 real quick,” said Farmerie, 53, of Youngwood. “There will be permit fees. We'll have to run longer miles. ... It could have a severe impact.”

That would mean less profit, farmers said.

“Everything is going up — feed costs, fertilizer costs, fuel costs,” said dairy farmer Chuck Carr of New Alexandria. “It keeps chipping away. ... You can only chip away so long, and then you're out of business.”

The farm bureau, with a volunteer membership of more than 58,000 farm and rural families, said its members are urging the General Assembly to approve a spending plan that will adequately fund Pennsylvania's transportation system.

“Farmers depend upon the sufficient maintenance of roads and bridges in order to keep products flowing to and from the farm,” said farm bureau President Carl T. Shaffer.

A transportation funding plan stalled in the Legislature this summer. A $2.5 billion plan passed the Senate, while a $2 billion House proposal got out of committee but has not come up for a floor vote.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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