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PennDOT-Private Partnership Moves Ahead to Replace Bridges

Pennsylvania is moving ahead with plans to quickly replace hundreds of its nearly 4,500 structurally deficient bridges with the help of a private consortium.

Wed July 30, 2014 - Northeast Edition
Jim Hook

Pennsylvania is moving ahead with plans to quickly replace hundreds of its nearly 4,500 structurally deficient bridges with the help of a private consortium.

The consortium would design and build the bridges within five years, then maintain them for a quarter century. Several bridges are in south-central Pennsylvania.

The Rapid Bridge Replacement Project would replace about 600 bridges statewide. The state’s goal is to start construction in 2015.

The current list includes 94 bridges in Franklin, Adams, Cumberland, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Dauphin and Perry counties, according to John Kennedy, portfolio manager of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 8.

The two in Franklin County are the Pa. 233 bridge over Carbaugh Run near the Totem Pole Playhouse and the Pa. 274 bridge over a branch of Tuscarora Creek near Doylesburg. Core samples already have been taken at the Pa. 233 bridge.

PennDOT is scoring five consortiums on their qualifications and will select at least one to submit a proposal. A consortium typically includes engineers, contractors and a financial group.

The project is moving through uncharted territory.

Generally, this is how it will work: The consortium will acquire financing upfront for designing and building the bridges, then design and build. The state will pay the consortium at project milestones, probably tied to bridge completions. The consortium then inspects and maintains the bridge for up to 35 years.

Bottom line: PennDOT gets a bundle of bridges done early, and the consortium gets five years of steady work.

The state would still own the bridges. The bridges cannot be toll bridges, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Jamie Legenos.

The details, and pricing, however are still being worked out.

"I don’t think I understand," said a spokesman of George S. Hann & Son Inc., a small bridge contractor in Fort Littleton. "I don’t see where it’s a benefit. Taxpayers are still paying for it one way or the other. Is it cutting red tape? It’s like they’re adding more employees to do what those PennDOT employees should be doing. It’s definitely going to hurt the smaller contractors. I would think it would hurt the medium-sized contractors."

The consortium should be able to take advantage of economies of scale and use standard designs for several bridges, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.

"Some are single-span and some are double, but they’re relatively simple designs," Waters-Trasatt said.

The Hann spokesman said some marriages don’t last as long as the maintenance term for the consortium.

"If a team member or affiliated company would go bankrupt, there are assurances built into the agreement," Waters-Transatt said. "Another group or company would have to complete the work in the contract, or we would have options depending on the situation. This is also part of why the scoring of the five teams’ statements of qualification includes a financial review."

The winning consortium is expected to hire subcontractors to do much of the work.

That’s what happened in Missouri in 2009. The consortium, KTU Constructors, used 40 contractors to build 330 bridges through the first half of a 4-year, 554-bridge contract, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Missouri however dropped the long-term maintenance part of the agreement.

PennDOT must use care in how quickly they want the bridges done, or contractors may not be available for the typical PennDOT contracts, especially with the state transportation plan (Act 89) providing more money for highways, according to Jason Wagner, managing director of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association. PennDOT certifies the work capacity of a highway contractor.

"They have to find that careful balance of picking bridges that are close together," Wagner said. "Contractors may be busy to a point they don’t bid on other work."

The first bridges are to be done in the Pittsburgh and Poconos areas.

PennDOT’s most recent list of public-private partnership bridges include 18 in Adams, 10 in Cumberland, 16 in York and eight in Fulton counties.

The public and private Partnerships for Transportation Act of 2012 allows PennDOT to partner with private companies to deliver, maintain and finance transportation-related projects.

PennDOT has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fixing state bridges in recent years, but Pennsylvania still leads the nation in the number of structurally deficient bridges. The state would have to replace 400 bridges a year over the next two decades to bring its percentage of deficient bridges down to the national average.

For more information about the program, visit

Jim Hook can be reached at 717/262-4759.

This article was reprinted with permission given by Public Opinion.

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