Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Infrastructure investment overdue

By Michael F. Britt

The transportation funding bill signed by Gov. Corbett last November has generated some backlash, with complaints of potentially higher gas prices and higher registration and license fees. But that backlash threatens to overshadow the very real and drastic need underlying the bill: the improvement of Pennsylvania's crumbling roads and bridges.

With more than 25,000 state-owned bridges, Pennsylvania has the third-largest number of bridges in the nation; however, the state has the dubious distinction of leading the United States in the number of bridges classified as "structurally deficient." In the Philadelphia region alone, there are countless signs notifying motorists of load-capacity restrictions due to the continued deterioration of roads and bridges.

Crumbling roads and bridges aren't just a pressing issue for Pennsylvania, but for the nation.

Every day, more than 200 million motorists in the United States take trips over deficient bridges. Yet, for years, the U.S. infrastructure has lagged behind its overseas counterparts. While the United States typically spends about 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, European nations typically invest about 5 percent and China about 9. As a result of the funding increase in Pennsylvania, by 2017 and beyond, $2.4 billion more annually will be spent to pay for road and bridge improvements, mass transit, and other transportation projects. By passing the transportation funding bill, our legislators are not only elevating the future of the Southeast and the rest of the commonwealth, but they are also allowing Pennsylvania to compete on a regional, national, and international level as well.

Stories about the disastrous consequences of the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge have dominated the headlines of late. While these closures appear to have been politically motivated, and not due to the bridge's deficiencies, the situation in Fort Lee, N.J., provides insight into just what might be in store for Pennsylvania if more and more bridges are put out of commission: School buses and emergency vehicles will be caught in congestion, with drivers forced to navigate long circuitous routes to avoid closed bridges. The trucking and delivery industry, which moves $500 billion worth of goods and services annually, would also be impacted, resulting in longer delivery times and higher prices for consumers.

Functionally obsolete bridges are also creating a nightmare for drivers. Anyone who has traveled across the Washington Crossing Bridge in Bucks County's Upper Makefield Township, for instance, will know that the sides of the bridge's deck are littered with sideview mirrors shaved off as cars try to navigate the bridge's narrow passageway and guardrails, which were designed for vehicles of a very different era. Interstate 76, the Schuylkill Expressway, is yet another example of a deficient piece of Pennsylvania's crumbling infrastructure, causing headaches for motorists in the Philadelphia region. The heavily congested expressway has been long overdue for significant rehabilitation, but the estimated cost of $23.7 million has kept the project on hold.

The recent transportation funding bill is not the only means of boosting Pennsylvania's infrastructure. Act 88 of 2012 authorizes public-private transportation efforts, commonly referred to as P3 projects, in Pennsylvania. This legislation allows the state Department of Transportation and other state authorities and commissions to enter into agreements with the private sector to participate in the delivery, maintenance, and financing of transportation-related projects. Through this model, Pennsylvania is currently bundling more than 500 bridges statewide for replacement, providing a great example for other states to follow.

Many Pennsylvanians may ask why we don't get our infrastructure funding from elsewhere in the budget. But that would only create a vicious cycle, rather than make any real headway toward solving the problem.

Pennsylvanians need to understand that the rehabilitation of Pennsylvania and America's infrastructure through measures such as the transportation bill won't be cheap or easy. But there is no question that we need to embrace and commit to such measures in order to avoid potentially disastrous consequences and to arrest the downward spiral of our once exemplary infrastructure system.

The day-to-day consequence of doing nothing may be an extra 10 minutes idling in traffic congestion, but think about that time over a year or a lifetime. Extended commute times directly impact quality of life for many of us, not to mention the costs for motorists associated with idling in traffic.

Pennsylvanians need to look at infrastructure the same way we view and spend on education or health-care programs. All of these areas are essential to improving and building on the prosperity of the state and nation. Infrastructure is the backbone of our society. Without it, very little can happen.

We should look at the big picture and applaud our policy makers and transportation officials for taking such bold steps to assure Pennsylvanians that we will enjoy a transportation system that is safe, efficient, and inviting to businesses and the traveling public.

Michael F. Britt is senior vice president and director of project development at Modjeski and Masters, a bridge engineering firm based in Pennsylvania (www.modjeski.com).

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