Pa. chipping away at its reputation for flawed bridges

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The Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge over the Delaware River connects Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

PITTSBURGH — The overall numbers are stark and have been for years: Pennsylvania has the second highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country (4,173) and the fifth highest percent of bridges in that category (18.3 percent).

But the state Department of Transportation is making progress — it upgraded 333 bridges last year, 44 more than any other state — and this month Gov. Wolf announced new programs to address even more bad roads and bridges.

Statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration and analyzed by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association show Pennsylvania is behind only Iowa in the number of structurally deficient bridges. Those statistics say they are for 2017, but PennDOT says they often lag a year behind.

Bridges that are structurally deficient have deteriorated in some areas due to age and wear and often have weight restrictions. They no longer meet their original construction standards, but they are safe as long as motorists follow restrictions.

George McAuley, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for highway administration, said the numbers don’t really reflect the state’s effort to repair deficient bridges. According to the agency’s numbers through 2017, the state’s number of deficient bridges has been nearly cut in half since 2008, from 6,034 to 3,114 as of Jan. 1.

Those improvements occurred despite another 200 to 250 bridges deteriorating enough to move into the deficient category each year, McAuley said. The numbers also look bad because the state has 22,779 bridges, the ninth highest amount in the country, he added.

“As we chisel away at this, we’re chiseling at a much larger base,” he said. “Over that 10-year period, we’ve aggressively gone after these bridges and done a lot of them.”

McAuley pointed to the state’s first public-private partnership with Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners as an example of an innovative way to attack the bridge problem. Plenary Walsh is expected to finish a 3½-year program by the end of the year that calls for replacing 558 small, similar bridges and maintaining them for 25 years at a cost of $942 million.

The state probably won’t use that type of program for bridges again because there isn’t another large pool of spans available that would use similar components and construction methods, which allows for an economy of scale.

Kent Harries, an associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said the condition of bridges in Pennsylvania is part of the national lack of attention to infrastructure. Overall, he gave Pennsylvania high marks for its efforts.

“Honestly, I would say Pennsylvania is making progress with what it has done,” Harries said. “Do I think it’s good enough? No. But what are people willing to pay in taxes to get them all fixed?

“Without a paradigm shift in how we fund infrastructure, we are only going to make incremental improvements.”

Wolf’s proposed 2018-19 budget calls for $300 million in additional funds over several years to improve the surface of 900 miles of low-volume roads and upgrade 85 to 100 municipally owned bridges that are structurally deficient.

Of that, $200 million would be earmarked for a five-year program to restore and repair rural commercial routes. That fund would be supplemented by $50 million from cost-sharing partnerships with industries that use heavy vehicles on those roads.

Those roads, which have average daily traffic of 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles, will be repaved using cold recycled asphalt and then sealed to improve their surface and extend their life.

The budget also calls for a $50 million, five-year program to help municipalities with their structurally deficient bridges through grants that require no local match. About 31 percent of the 3,819 municipal bridges are structurally deficient.

Another $50 million will be used in 2018-19 to improve about 260 miles of low-volume roads in the state system.