Pennsylvania struggles to chip away at bridge problem
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.