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Pennsylvania struggles to chip away at bridge problem

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
JC Schisler
A bicyclist steers underneath a rusty section of the Liberty Bridge Friday, June 7, 2013. Governor Tom Corbett held a press conference near this particular section under the bridge to stress the need for more money to improve Pennsylvania's transportation system, including structurally deficient bridges.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
From top: the Birmingham Bridge, 10th Street Bridge, Liberty Bridge and the Panhandle Bridge on June 7, 2013, as seen from Mount Washington.

It would cost state taxpayers billions of dollars to fix a growing number of structurally deficient bridges, but it costs money to do nothing with them, too, a top transportation official says.

Pennsylvania has the most deficient bridges in the nation — about 5,400, including state- and locally owned spans — and lawmakers in Harrisburg are grappling with proposals to boost transportation funding by at least $1.8 billion. Even with that kind of windfall, about 300 more bridges will join the list each year, adding costly detours for some.

That drives up gas consumption, business costs, emergency response times and lengths of commutes for workers, students and others, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said. The average detour around a closed or weight-restricted bridge is about 8 miles, he said.

Weight restrictions hinder us, Tom McElree of Robinson-based Emergency Medical Services Institute said, noting some large EMS vehicles weigh 26,000 pounds — or 13 tons — and many bridges have limits of 10 tons or less.

Randall Smith, president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, said school buses across the state carry more than 1.5 million children daily. Many must take longer routes because of weight restrictions, he said. All of them cross structurally deficient bridges, he said.

Bad bridges threaten business, Schoch said, noting the condition of Pennsylvania's bridges recently led a dairy farming company that routinely operates tankers weighing 94,000 pounds or more to locate its facility in Virginia instead of Pennsylvania.

“Transportation is constant maintenance. If you don't keep up with it, you're going to have problems,” Gov. Tom Corbett said last week beneath the hulking Liberty Bridge, a structurally deficient span that carries 16,000 motorists a day.

Corbett and other state leaders say Pennsylvania is keeping pace with bridge deterioration, removing about as many spans from its list of structurally deficient bridges as it adds each year because of serious deterioration.

Without extra money for bridges, Schoch predicts his agency will fix only 200 troubled spans a year over the next decade.

About 1,400 bridges could be slapped with weight restrictions, on top of 1,400 now restricted, PennDOT said.

About $2 billion could reduce Pennsylvania's backlog, allowing PennDOT to fix up to 400 annually, the agency projects.

Pennsylvania senators last week passed a bill to raise $2.5 billion annually for transportation by lifting a cap on the state's oil company franchise tax and increasing driver fees and fines, including adding a $100 surcharge to traffic tickets. A $1.8 billion Corbett plan would uncap the gas tax.

Chipping away at the bridge problem could hinge on private investment of $1.5 billion to $2 billion, Schoch said. Legislators paved the way for such an investment by passing Act 88, the so-called “public-private partnership law,” last summer.

One possible deal would enable repair of 1,000 small- to medium-sized bridges. Under it, a private company would finance the improvements and repair and maintain the spans for up to 30 years, acting as a general contractor while using local companies to perform work.

The general contractors would be on the hook for cost overruns.

In exchange, Schoch said PennDOT would pay the company an estimated $100 million to $150 million a year in money that would come from any boost in transportation funding.

In recent years, PennDOT used bond money and federal stimulus money to complement bridge work funded directly in its $7 billion operating budget. Under former Gov. Ed Rendell, it repaired more than 1,100 bridges with bond money and 133 bridges with stimulus money, records show.

“People should be concerned about this now, because the longer (the state) waits, the more it's going to cost to fix our bridge problems,” said Martin Pietrucha, director of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State University.

Using a homeowner analogy, Pietrucha said it's “a whole helluva lot easier to fix a roof when it has a small leak than after it caves in.”

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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