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Pennsylvania Bridges Plagued With Problems; Some May Close

Wed August 10, 2011 - National Edition
Kevin Begos

OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) Thousands of bridges are rusting, creaking and wearing out in Pennsylvania, but the flow of money to repair them is dwindling.

And like a homeowner who puts off fixing a leaky roof, the state’s delaying repairs won’t make things easier over time.

“We’re getting more and more bridges that are deteriorating,” said Scott Christie, Pennsylvania DOT’s deputy secretary for Highway Administration.

The price tag for all the needed repairs: about $8.7 billion, according to PennDOT.

The future budget for repairs, with no new funding? About $600 million a year.

That means that at projected funding and maintenance levels, the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state will rise, Christie told The Associated Press.

If that happens, drivers may see the bridge problem as more than just a statistic.

“Instead to keeping the bridges open, we’ll have to close them,” Christie said.

A national study released earlier this year by the Washington, D.C.-based Transportation for America coalition found that 26.5 percent of Pennsylvania’s bridges are structurally deficient — the highest rate in the country, and more than double the national average of 11.5 percent. That translates into 5,906 bridges that need fixing, out of about 25,000 total. State officials use a slightly different system of counting, but agree that Pa. bridges need a lot of work.

PennDOT has closed 42 bridges, and 669 more are posted with warnings. Some carry only light traffic, but others carry thousands of vehicles each day.

In Pennsylvania crews conduct about 19,000 inspections each year. They check bridge decks for wear and damage, the main support beams for cracks and rust, and foundations for structural problems, with more frequent inspections for the worst bridges.

PennDOT reduced the backlog of work from 2008 to 2010, by replacing or making repairs to 1600 bridges. That was possible because of help from a state bond program and federal stimulus money. But both those sources are drying up.

DOT engineers know it’s more cost-effective to do aggressive maintenance, especially on old bridges. But if politicians or voters don’t put money in the budget, there’s little they can do beyond working on the worst bridges first, they say.

With such a backlog of essential repairs, there isn’t always time to respond to new developments. Truck and other vehicle traffic has surged in recent years in parts of the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling region but Christie said PennDOT engineers haven’t been assessing that impact.

Christie and other officials said they’re keeping a close watch on the worst bridges in the state, in part to make sure there’s no repeat of the Aug. 1, 2007, Minneapolis bridge disaster, when the I-35 westbound bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River during afternoon rush-hour. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured.

The investigation into that disaster found that the Minneapolis bridge had design flaws, and transportation officials here and throughout the country made special assessments of similar bridges. In Pennsylvania, the state owns 28 such bridges, and others own 26 more.

PennDOT officials said that if a bridge is open, it’s safe to drive on. But some worry that disaster could strike here, too.

“Any day, one could collapse, and hopefully no one will be on it when that happens,” State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.

Keeping up with bridge repairs is an old problem for Pennsylvania — literally.

One stone bridge in Montgomery County, about 25 mi. northwest of Philadelphia, was built in 1789, and George Washington once surveyed a bridge in the Philadelphia area, according to PennDOT. More than 200 bridges in the state were built in the 1800s, and 7,600 were built before World War II. Many still carry traffic — lots of it.

Sometimes the view tells drivers there’s a problem.

“You could look straight down to the river from the bridge. There were holes all through the bridge,” Jodi Beckett of South Buffalo told the Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum. She was talking about the 3,114-ft.-long Freeport Bridge in Armstrong County, about 30 mi. northeast of Pittsburgh, where a $63 million repair project has begun.

The bridge is one of 54 steel deck truss bridges in Pennsylvania — the same type as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis.

Safety isn’t the only issue with bridges. When they close, local businesses suffer, too.

The 490-ft.-long West Newton Bridge, about 25 mi. south of Pittsburgh, was built in 1907. It was closed for three weeks last year after crews discovered a badly deteriorated joint near the middle of the bridge while they sandblasted and painted it.

“If the closure would have gone on much longer, I probably would have had to close,” said Rod Darby, owner of The Trailside, which includes a restaurant and convenience store. The bridge over the Youghiogheny River, which divides West Newton, carries about 6,300 vehicles a day.

“We’re still feeling the effects. The problem is, when a bridge closes, it’s like turning off the switch on business traffic. When it reopens, the traffic just trickles back,” Darby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Transportation officials use a nationally standardized system for inspecting and rating bridges, giving structures a so-called “sufficiency rating” of 0 to 100, from worst to best. Those that score from 50 to 79 are eligible for federal repair funds; those that score under 50 are eligible for federal funds to help replace the bridge. But there’s not enough money to fund all the projects that meet the criteria.

Some bridges in the state can’t get much worse, according to the system.

In Philadelphia County, the 57-ft. Coulter Avenue/Chestnut Hill Bridge has a sufficiency rating of 5.5 out of 100. Built in 1901, it’s posted with restrictions. Reports indicate that the deck and superstructure are in poor condition and that “deterioration of primary structural elements has advanced.” An average of 5,568 vehicles cross the bridge each day.

The tough news doesn’t stop at the state level. Local governments are responsible for thousands more bridges in need of repair, and face similar funding challenges. Fixing those would cost another $2.8 billion, PennDOT estimates.

On top of that, trucking interests have been lobbying to increase the allowable weight of tractor-trailers on roads and thus, bridges. And some regions, such as those with intense Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, are seeing dramatic increases in all traffic, and thus, wear on bridges.

“In the Marcellus Shale areas, traffic’s going up by factors of 2, 3 and 4 [times], depending on the area,” said Christie.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said in June that its members contributed $411 million toward road and infrastructure repairs over the last three years.

Sometimes motorists have no choice but to cross a questionable bridge.

The Hulton Bridge near Pittsburgh was built in 1909. The two-lane bridge with no turn lanes provides critical access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It has a sufficiency rating of just 3 out of 100, according to the Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum. Rust has eaten through the paint on many of the support beams near the roadway, and patches of metal are flaking off.

“It’s the only way in and out of Oakmont,” said Chris Heintzinger, who uses the bridge five days a week to travel to her job in Wexford. “There’s no other options.”

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