Bridges remain a concern in state

December 8, 2012
Deputy Transportation Secretary Gary Hoffman, center, inspects part of the Lakeview Drive overpass that collapsed onto Interstate 70 in December 2005. Since this collapse, the state has made progress on replacing deficient bridges around the area. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

When the Lakeview Drive bridge came crashing down on Interstate 70 in South Strabane Township almost seven years ago, it proved to be a wake-up call for the state Department of Transportation.

In the weeks that followed, inspectors looked closely at bridges of a similar design. The bridge that took North Main Street over I-70, also in South Strabane, was closed, demolished and replaced. A bridge that took Sumney Road over I-70 in Somerset was also closed and torn down but never replaced.

“Since that tidal wave seven years ago, we put together a strategy to address the problem,” said Joseph Szczur, district executive for PennDOT’s District 12, which includes Washington and Greene counties. “There have been inroads made. We have been able to replace or repair 83 bridges in Washington and Greene counties at a cost of $145 million.”

Szczur said there are other overpasses of the same structure type as Lakeview and North Main still in service in both counties.

A structurally deficient bridge has at least one structural component in poor condition or worse. Addressing the deficiency typically requires rehabilitation or replacement. In Washington County, there are 183 structurally deficient bridges and another 90 in Greene. The bridge is not unsafe to use, provided any posted weight limits are obeyed, Szczur said. The average age of the bridges that need replaced is 74 years old.

“We are drawing down the number as best we can,” Szczur said. “When we started, one out three bridges in the district was structurally deficient. Today, that number is a lot lower with about 25 percent. Some of the bridges that need replaced are large.”

One of the more noteworthy bridges that has been addressed is the Donora-Webster bridge, which has been closed for more than two years and is scheduled to be demolished in 2014, Szczur said.

Bridges that need to be replaced include the bridges on I-70 at Bentleyville and the Route 481 interchanges and one over Pike Run.

While most of the bridges are identified for repair or replacement as part of the Transportation Improvement Program cycle, the federal accelerated bridge program provided $375 million make improvements across the state, Szczur added.

“But there are a lot of roads and bridges we don’t have a revenue stream for,” he said. “There is an ongoing dialogue between the department and the Secretary of Transportation to try and figure out ways to address the transportation needs throughout the state.”

Bridges are prioritized, looking at the ones in the worst shape and the amount of traffic across it, Szczur said. Over the last seven years, almost $19 million had been spent on bridge preservation work in the two counties to prevent bridges from becoming structurally deficient, She added.

Outgoing state Auditor General Jack Wagner is not satisfied with work being done to improve the aging road and bridge system in the state. Earlier this year, he called for legislative action to address the crisis of the state’s crumbling infrastructure before there is a catastrophe.

“We have more structurally deficient bridges than any other state,” Wagner said last month. “Drivers in Pennsylvania are 10 times more likely to pass a structurally deficient bridge than they are a McDonald’s restaurant.”

“My concerns are many,” he added. “There is a significant urgency to address these problems.”

Wagner said a good infrastructure is crucial to the state’s economy.

“It is vitally important to the private sector to have a good infrastructure to provide goods and services,” Wagner said. “And that is not just roads, but rail lines and airports.”

He also noted the state has the eighth-worst road system in the country, with more than 8,400 miles of substandard highways.

“We can put people to work improving our roads and bridges,” Wagner said. “There is a wide variety of professions needed, from laborers and ironworkers to engineers and architects.

Wagner, who said he has been very vocal on this issue, said that in 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission released a report that included funding proposals to bring in $2.5 billion a year for infrastructure projects. Wagner said there has been a continued decline in fuel tax coupled with reduced buying power as a result of inflation.

“The No. 1 suggestion is taking the seal off the wholesale price of gasoline and then gradually increasing it over a five-year period,” Wagner said. “The proposal has been put in the form of legislation, but it has not gone anywhere.”

Szczur concurred that there is sufficiently not enough money to address the problem with structurally deficient bridges. He estimated it would take $540 million just to address the structurally deficient bridges in Washington and Greene counties.

Corbett said last week that he is considering all of the commission’s recommendations and expects to lay out a proposal for transportation instructure needs when the new Legislature convenes in mid-January.

Kathie O. Warco has covered the police beat and transportation for the Observer-Reporter for more than 25 years. She graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in journalism.

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