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Thousands of deteriorating spans need to be fixed

By Tom Fontaine and Rossilynne Skena,
Sunday, July 31, 2011
 

Bridge work is a hot topic at The Rainbow, a tiny bar in the shadow of the hulking Freeport Bridge.

PennDOT is spending more than $63 million to fix the deteriorated bridge that stretches more than a half-mile, connecting four Western Pennsylvania counties.

"It's a big conversation because it's going to change the way that everything is in Freeport," said bartender Jodi Beckett of South Buffalo in Armstrong County. "It's a big project that we've been waiting for forever."

The bridge spanning the Allegheny River about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh is less than 50 years old. Like almost 7,400 other state and locally owned bridges in Pennsylvania, it is rated by officials as structurally deficient, according to PennDOT data. About 1,900 are in the 10-county area surrounding Pittsburgh.

And like the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed four years ago Monday, killing 13 people and injuring 145, the Freeport Bridge is a steel deck truss bridge — one of 54 in Pennsylvania.

Since the Minnesota catastrophe, Pennsylvania's number of structurally deficient bridges has fallen as money for bridge work has increased.

But a national study released in March by Washington, D.C.-based Transportation for America found that 26.5 percent of Pennsylvania's bridges remain structurally deficient -- the highest rate in the country, and more than double the national average of 11.5 percent. State officials use a slightly different system of counting, but agree that Pennsylvania bridges need a lot of work.

"We're getting more and more bridges that are deteriorating," said Scott Christie, PennDOT's deputy secretary for highway administration.

Christie said the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state will rise because of the current rate of funding repairs. So, too, will the number of closed and weight-restricted bridges. Structural problems keep 42 bridges closed to all traffic across the state and 669 more are posted with warnings.

Transportation officials use a standardized system for inspecting and rating bridges. At the end of the process, they give bridges a so-called "sufficiency rating" of 0 to 100. Those that score from 50 to 79 are eligible for federal funding for repairs; those that score under 50 are eligible for federal money to help replace the bridge.

More than one in four of the region's bridges -- 29 percent of them -- are structurally deficient, according to PennDOT data. Statewide, excluding this region, about 22 percent are.

In Pennsylvania, crews conduct about 19,000 inspections each year. They check bridge decks, superstructures and substructures for wear, rust and structural problems, with more frequent inspections for the worst bridges.

The three PennDOT engineering districts encompassing the Pittsburgh region spent a combined $252 million on bridge projects in 2008. That increased to $279.5 million in 2009 and $349 million last year, but it's expected to drop to $306 million this year and continue falling in years to come.

"I'd say it's going to be dire if we don't get increased funding to attack this situation, but the fact is, we just don't know what's going to happen or what to expect," said Joseph Dubovi, executive for the PennDOT district including Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Indiana and Jefferson counties.

Not knowing is the hard part.

"We struggle as it is in the Mon Valley, but we depend on that (Charleroi-Monessen) bridge. Not having it has made life even tougher for our businesses and residents," said Debbie Keefer, director of the Charleroi-based Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce.

PennDOT this month imploded the 1,810-foot-long bridge over the Monongahela River, 2 12 years after problems found in an inspection prompted authorities to close the 105-year-old span linking Route 88 in Washington County to Route 906 in Westmoreland County. The bridge has a sufficiency rating of 1.

A replacement is scheduled to open late next year. Until then, motorists endure detours of 20 minutes or more.

Local historian Nikki Sheppick, 59, of Charleroi laments the loss of the bridge, which was on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There were people cheering the destruction of this bridge instead of recognizing that it served the public well for more than 100 years, longer than most bridges do," Sheppick said.

The average age of bridges in the 10-county Pittsburgh region is 57 years. The national average is 42 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A bridge doesn't have to be old to start falling apart.

Five years ago, the Freeport Bridge -- then 44 years old -- earned a sufficiency rating of 2 and a three-ton weight limit after inspections revealed more than 200 areas where deteriorating steel required reinforcement.

"I used to say I was going to go across with my windows down in case it collapsed," Freeport resident Joyce Conti said.

Beckett, the bartender, refused to drive on it.

"You could look right straight down to the river from the bridge," she said.

Emergency repairs brought the rating up to 27, and the weight restriction was lifted. The $63 million project, scheduled for completion in late 2013, will address remaining deficiencies.

A ramp to the heavily used Veterans Bridge that crosses the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh was built in 1988 and is structurally deficient. PennDOT said a leaky joint deteriorated concrete holding up the ramp, but it will be fixed as part of an $18.7 million project to improve the busy bridge.

"When it's fixed, it will go on to have a long life," said Dan Cessna, executive of the PennDOT district that includes Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties. He said the goal, from an engineering standpoint, is to build and maintain bridges that last at least 100 years -- longer for major river crossings.

PennDOT recently closed the 80-year-old Boston Bridge that links Versailles and Elizabeth Township to perform $17.3 million in repairs. Cessna thinks the work -- including replacing the bridge's deck and sidewalk, fixing cracks in piers and repainting it -- will "easily take that bridge to 120 years, and then it will only need minor repairs compared to now."

Alternate routes across the Youghiogheny River add 20 minutes or more. The bridge, with a sufficiency rating of 2, is expected to remain closed to traffic through September.

Without the average daily traffic of 17,000 vehicles a day passing by, Greg Antonelli, of Woody's Restaurant and Catering in Versailles, said business has been down about 25 percent since the bridge closed.

"They should have kept traffic going on the existing bridge and built a new one next to it," Antonelli said.

A $20 million project to fix the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge in Beaver County could hamper redevelopment of former industrial sites in Ambridge, said Pat Nardelli, a partner with Franklin Park-based Castlebrook Development. Work on the 1,995-foot-long bridge over the Ohio River, with a sufficiency rating of 2, will result in early spring to late fall closures next year and in 2013.

"Without access to that bridge, we're going to have to find an alternate route to get trucks and materials to the site," Nardelli said. Trucks that would exit Interstate 376 and cross the bridge into Ambridge would face an 11-mile detour using the congested Sewickley Bridge or a 16-mile detour on the East Rochester-Monaca Bridge.

Short-term closures can hurt, too.

The 490-foot-long West Newton Bridge in Westmoreland County, built in 1907, closed for three weeks last year after crews discovered a badly deteriorated joint near the middle of the bridge while sandblasting and painting it. Emergency repairs cost $165,000. Its sufficiency rating remains low, at 15.2.

"If the closure would have gone on much longer, I probably would have had to close," said Rod Darby, owner of The Trailside, which includes a restaurant and convenience store. The Youghiogheny River bridge connects eastern and western West Newton and carries 6,300 vehicles a day.

"The problem is, when a bridge closes, it's like turning off the switch on business traffic. When it reopens, the traffic just trickles back," Darby said.

Traffic might never return to the Donora-Webster Bridge, also on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1908, the 1,547-foot-long bridge between Route 837 in Washington County and Route 906 in Westmoreland County closed two years ago after inspectors found critical deterioration in main support beams. It has a sufficiency rating of 0.

Rachel Duda, assistant executive for the PennDOT district including Washington, Westmoreland, Greene and Fayette counties, said officials are weighing their options. The costliest -- building a new bridge -- figures to run more than $25 million.

"Not reopening the bridge is an option being considered," Duda said. The Donora-Monessen Bridge is about 2 miles away.

PennDOT plans to replace the two-lane, lilac-colored Hulton Bridge between Oakmont and Harmar in a multi-year project that could cost up to $90 million and start in mid-2013. The existing bridge has a sufficiency rating of 3, but is used by 20,000 vehicles a day.

"It's the only way in and out of Oakmont," said borough resident Chris Heintzinger, who uses the bridge daily commuting to work even though the going can be slow. "There's no other options."

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