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December 09, 2016
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Building bridges

How did it get to be this bad?

Pennsylvania has earned the nationwide distinction for having the largest number of bridges that have been left to fall into disrepair. Twenty-six percent of more than 31,000 bridges are deemed structurally deficient. While the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) hastens to point out that “structurally deficient” (SD) bridges are still safe to travel, the term nevertheless means there is deterioration to one or more of its major components.

In fact, things have gotten bad enough that PennDOT has begun posting new or added weight restrictions on about 1,000 of its bridges statewide. (The posting of county and locally owned bridges will be addressed later, after PennDOT, which has regulatory authority over all bridges, discusses these changes with the bridges’ owners. How sparsely populated rural municipalities with small tax bases will afford to repair their bridges without state or federal help is anybody’s guess.)

Weight-restricted bridges are more than an inconvenience for drivers; the result is bad news for Pennsylvania’s economy. At many posted bridges, these weight limits will result in costly detours for the heaviest vehicles—the trucks and tractor trailers that carry goods to keep our economy going. Cement mixers, fire trucks, buses and other heavy vehicles may face these detours, too.

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, a Governor Corbett appointee, has been warning about this day for some time, and makes no secret where he assigns the blame for this sad state of affairs. When lawmakers failed to agree on how to fund a transportation bill in June, leaving the governor to sign the 2013-2014 state budget without it, PennDOT lost a highway construction season.

“If it’s not done this fall [when lawmakers return from the summer recess], it will be years,” Schoch said. “And that’s just mind-boggling.”

Even if the legislature passes a transportation bill in the fall, the earliest the weight restrictions could be removed would be when repairs can be scheduled for funding within two years. If conditions warrant, the restrictions could remain in place until repairs are made.

PennDOT had been hoping to put contracts out for bid to rebuild more than 600 bridges. Now that goal is in question, possibly for years to come. And, according to Schoch, about 12,000 jobs will be lost and an additional 50,000 jobs won’t be created.

So, what were lawmakers thinking when they failed to agree on any of three proposed transportation plans—not the House plan, not the Senate plan, and not Governor Corbett’s plan?

Democrats balked because they wanted more money for public transit; more than two dozen conservative Republicans withheld support because they did not want to raise the gasoline tax; and somehow the bill got tied to the governor’s liquor privatization proposal that went down in defeat, too.

So, let’s talk money.

Schoch said the average motorist, who drives 12,000 miles a year, would have paid $2 more per week under either the Corbett plan or the House Republican plan and $2.50 more per week under the Senate plan. On the other hand, rejection of transportation spending will still cost motorists. A recent report from TRIP, a national nonprofit research group, estimated that based on current (poor) road conditions the average PA driver will pay about $1,646 in annual auto repairs.

Perhaps the irony of this subject has not escaped you. The subject is about building bridges. It seems to us that there needs to be some bridge building in the PA legislature where, for far too long, ideology on both sides of the political aisle has interfered with conducting the necessary business of the public.

As far as the public is concerned, letting our infrastructure continue to deteriorate is no longer an option. Restricting weight limits may be a temporary measure that helps slow deterioration, but it is not a solution. Investing in infrastructure will help create jobs and support economic growth. It’s time for the obstructionist ideologues in Harrisburg to see infrastructure funding as a bipartisan issue that requires finding common ground—perhaps in the middle of a bridge.