HARRISBURG, PA — Barry J. Schoch, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot), announced on August 23 that the department will implement or expand weight restrictions to about 1,000 structurally deficient bridges statewide to ensure bridge safety and preserve the aging bridge system.
A press release from the department said, “PennDOT must take this step because of legislative inaction this past June on transportation funding, leaving the department’s future resources in question. Reducing the weight traveling on these bridges will slow down their deterioration and preserve safety while funding for their repairs remains uncertain.”
There are some 4,479 “structurally deficient bridges” in Pennsylvania, making the Keystone State number one in the nation for the number of bridges needing repair.
In Wayne County there are a total of 253 bridges, and 69 are structurally deficient; in Pike, there are 160, and 44 need work. At the moment, however, there is no funding available through either the state or federal governments to pay for repairs.
Not that some politicians haven’t been trying. At the state level, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a transportation bill before the general assembly departed for its summer break. Senate Bill One would have provided $2.5 billion in transportation funding.
The bill would have raised the funds by gradually doing away with the cap on the tax paid by gasoline wholesalers. Currently, they can only be taxed on a price of $1.25 per gallon. If the cap were removed, the tax would increase from about 19 cents to about 48 cents per gallon.
The PA House of Representatives, however, failed to come to an agreement about the bill. Representative Mike Hanna blamed House Republicans for failing to negotiate with their Democratic counterparts. He said, “In the end no package as important as this transportation package can be passed without both sides of the aisle, and it’s something that has to be done.”
Several state lawmakers of both parties have said that a transportation bill will be a priority when they return to Harrisburg on September 23. But some analysts are skeptical of a bill being passed, because it is unofficially linked to the privatization of the state liquor store system, and that is being aggressively opposed by the union that represents employees of the state store system and Democrats.
At the federal level, neither chamber of Congress voted for a transportation funding bill. For a while it looked like the Senate was going to pass the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill (THUD), and Sen. Robert Casey Jr. said the bill contained “several initiatives to directly address bridge repairs and broader transportation priorities that are vital to the state.”
He said the bill supported the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program (TIGER), which provides grants for significant projects in a variety of transportation modes, including highways and bridges, public transit, passenger and freight railroads and port infrastructure.
Ultimately, however, five Republican senators who had earlier backed the legislation suddenly pulled their support from it after it became clear that Republicans in the House were not going be able to gather enough Republican votes to pass their own version of THUD.
According to various accounts of the matter, the bill was pulled because of a failure to agree between a small group of Republican House members who thought the level of spending in the House version was too small, and conservative members who thought the spending level was too high. Republican leaders said they would return to the bill in the fall.
But the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers, said he thinks that is unlikely. He has been quoted in numerous publications as saying, “With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration, and it’s unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts, must be brought to an end.”