HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to place new weight restrictions on about 1,000 bridges will have little effect on the average motorist. But, some industries will feel the pain.
Secretary Barry Schoch announced the new weight restrictions during a news conference Thursday morning, as state lawmakers continue to ponder the passage of a $2-billion transportation infrastructure package funded by increased taxes and fees.
Schoch said the move was made necessary by the age of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure and the General Assembly's inaction on road and bridge funding. Opponents of additional spending said the maneuver was nothing more than a political stunt.
It will take a few months for PennDOT to official post the new weight restrictions on all the bridges, though a full list of the bridges is now available online. About half of the bridges on the list already have some sort of weight restriction, but the other half will be restricted for the for first time, Schoch said.
For the average driver with a traditional vehicle, the restrictions are unlikely to cause any direct pain, he said.
"The impact for an average motorist is going to be negligible," Schoch said, because weight restrictions will only affect heavier vehicles like tractor trailers.
Some industries, particularly those that rely on tractor trailers and other heavy vehicles, will feel more direct consequences.
Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, which represents logging companies that employ some 60,000 Pennsylvanians, said weight restrictions on bridges in the rural parts of the state could create costly detours. He said he wants to see a transportation funding bill passed by the state General Assembly.
"We're trying to communicate that issue to (lawmakers). We're trying to hammer home that this is a core function of government," he said.
Not everyone in the General Assembly is buying that message.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, chairman of the House State Government Committee and one of the leaders of the anti-tax faction in the state House, pointed to the state's $7 billion transportation budget.
"I think, first of all, people need to be asking if Pennsylvania isn't already taking enough money out of the taxpayers' pockets," he said.
Though only about $3.8 billion of that total is used for roads and bridges, Metcalfe said the department should try to repurpose existing spending before using events like Thursday’s announcement to build support for tax increases.
If the bridges needed to be posted, they should have already been restricted, Metcalfe said. If not, then Thursday’s event was nothing more than a "political stunt," he said.
But Schoch warned that Thursday’s announcement could be just the beginning if the Legislature fails to act.
For now, the 1,000 new weight restrictions will be divided nearly evenly between state-owned bridges and those owned by local governments. No interstate highway bridges are on the list.
A bridge with no weight restrictions in Pennsylvania can handle more than 40 tons — about the weight of a fully-loaded tractor trailer. Schoch said some bridges will see weight limits lowered by as much as 20 percent, which cuts a 40 ton bridge down to 32 tons.
Likewise, a bridge currently limited at 30 tons would be reduced to 24 tons— possibly affecting other large trucks like construction vehicles or larger fire trucks.
"They’re not unsafe," Schoch stressed. “We are restricting the weight so we can slow down the deterioration.
But even though the average personal vehicle — weighing in at between 1 ton and 3 tons — probably would not be forced into any detours, consumers will feel the trickle-down effect.
Jennifer Reed-Harry, assistant vice president of PennsylvaniaAg, which represents the agriculture industry in the state, gave the example of a 40-ton tanker truck carrying milk from a farm. The average truck gets only 6 miles per gallon of fuel, so even a 10-mile detour around a newly restricted bridge would drive up the cost of business, she warned.
But is that enough of a reason for residents of the state to want a tax increase?
In June, the state Senate passed a $2.7-billion transportation plan with a 45-5 bipartisan vote. In the House, a $2-billion transportation package failed when a group of conservative Republicans refused to vote for a tax increase and Democrats withheld votes because they wanted to see a higher level of spending.
At the time, Schoch promised weight restrictions for bridges would be one consequences of legislative inaction.
On Thursday, he said more bridge restrictions would be coming even if the General Assembly passed a transportation spending plan in the fall.
Though he denied that Thursday's event was part of a political move to motivate lawmakers to support the transportation bill, there is no doubt that an effort is being made to keep transportation issues on the front burner during the Legislature’s summer break. The Senate Transportation Committee will hold a hearing next week in Pittsburgh, just down the road from Metcalfe’s district, to examine the issue.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a conservative nonprofit organization.