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PennDOT to pay team of companies for bridge repairs under single contract

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Pennsylvania has more than its fair share of structurally deficient bridges — a higher percentage than any other state.

What it doesn't have is the money to fix all of them, which is why public-private partnerships are coming into play.

PennDOT is betting on a team of private companies to pay the upfront cost of replacing at least 500 structurally deficient, state-owned bridges, a first-of-its kind effort for the agency in that the large amount of work will be awarded in one contract to save time and money.

“This will be a great opportunity, and we wouldn't have been able to do as many if it weren't for the new transportation funding law,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.

The Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, which will “bundle” the bridge work, is expected to save money because the bridges are relatively small and can be similarly designed, allowing one team of companies that likely will subcontract some work to complete the work, the agency said. A single contract eliminates the need to solicit separate bids for design, construction and other work, Waters-Trasatt said.

PennDOT is able to run Rapid Bridge Replacement Program because of a public-private partnership law that Gov. Tom Corbett signed in 2012 and the $2.3 billion transportation funding law passed in November. The bill provides more money for transportation projects.

Of 614 state-owned bridges statewide that are eligible for the bridge replacement program, 60 are in Allegheny County, which has the most of any county on the list. There are 24 eligible bridges in Westmoreland County, 16 in Beaver County, 13 in Butler County and 27 in Washington County.

“There have to be better ways of doing business than what we've been doing in the past to get the bridge problem under control,” said Lisa Cessna, executive director of Washington County's planning commission.

Five teams of companies submitted qualifications to do the work. PennDOT will pick the team and finalize the list of winning bridges. Work must be completed within five years.

PennDOT will own the bridges and perform basic maintenance, such as snow removal, but the team will be responsible for significant maintenance for up to 35 years, Waters-Trasatt said.

The team must secure funding, and it will be paid when certain work is completed, Waters-Trasatt said.

PennDOT expects the work to start in 2015. It does not have an estimate yet of costs.

Typically, if a project's risk is high, a company expects to make more profit, said Les Snyder, president and chief executive officer of Downtown-based Infrastructure and Industrial Constructors USA. With 500 bridges being built by one team of companies in five years, the companies would expect their profit to be higher, Snyder said.

Snyder's company and one of its subsidiaries are part of a team called Commonwealth Bridge Partners that submitted qualifications to PennDOT.

One reason Snyder's firm was drawn to the project was the opportunity to participate in a public-private partnership unprecedented in Pennsylvania because of its scope, Snyder said.

“It's a new process in the commonwealth,” he said.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said it would be “inappropriate” to comment because discussions with PennDOT about the program continue.

A pilot public-private partnership worked in Washington County, Cessna said. PennDOT paid to repair county-owned bridges through a bundling contract, but the counties have to maintain the roads.

“There would have been no way, even in the next 10 years, that we would have been able to accomplish getting this many bridges off the structurally deficient list,” said Cessna, who estimated the work to fix 17 bridges would have been in the millions.

Public-private partnerships were virtually unheard of 20 years ago, but have grown as the source of funding for transportation projects — state and federal gas taxes — has been flat, said Martin Pietrucha, a professor of civil engineering at Penn State and director of the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute.

“And in as much as the revenue basically has been staying flat while expenses have been going up, there's been a lot of deferred maintenance,” he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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