The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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July 7, 2013

Fix out, weight limits in

Funding failure forces Plan B for roads, bridges

MERCER COUNTY — When the Legislature left Harrisburg without addressing transportation funding, it cost the Department of Transportation a full construction season to fix roads and many of the Commonwealth’s 4,774 structurally deficient bridges.

Without money to repair the bridges, the Department of Transportation has compiled a list of almost 1,200 bridges that will be hit with weight limits, an indication that deterioration has compromised the spans ability to carry heavy trucks.

Statewide, 328 of the bridges are already posted with weigh-limits, but those limits will be decreased because the bridges’ conditions have deteriorated in the absence of repairs.

Among those bridges is the West Middlesex Viaduct. The 718-foot bridge is slated to be replaced and already has a 33-ton weight limit. How much it will be reduced is unclear.

The bridges pegged for weight limits include nine bridges more than 1,000 feet long, including the Mahoning Avenue Viaduct, a bridge across the Shenango River in New Castle.

The 90-year-old structure carries 8,300 vehicles a day, according to PennDOT estimates. The bridge was slated for $6 million in repairs according to the Department of Transportation’s Decade of Investment website. But when the transportation funding bill stalled, those repairs were shelved.

The state will do everything possible to find money to make the repairs to major bridges, said Steve Chizmar, a spokesman in PennDOT’s central office in Harrisburg.

But if the money isn’t there, “We have to err on the side of caution,” Chizmar said.

When a bridge is posted, it’s based on an “engineering calculation” about what kind of load the bridge can bear.

Those calculations are made for each bridge, so every one will have its own weight limit.

“The bottom line, if a bridge is unsafe, it’s closed,” Chizmar said.

As the state focuses more on bridge work, that may mean that road conditions will suffer. Rather than completely repair roads, PennDOT will likely begin to use oil and chip to repair the road surface, a temporary but less costly fix, Chizmar said.

“It will just hold (the road) together,” he said. “It’s like putting a coat of paint on bad wood.”

State officials hope the short-term fixes will suffice until the Legislature approves a transportation funding plan that will pay for the needed repairs.

But there is no easy solution on the horizon, noted Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, who opposed the transportation funding bill that stalled in June.

The idea that the state could use a 25-28 cents a gallon increase in gas tax to pay for the work was just too controversial, Sainato said. None of the other ideas for generating the money are going to be popular either, he said.

Sainato said he still believes wider use of tolling is the best way to generate the money. Tolls can get the money directly from the people who use the roads and bridges being repaired, he said. In the case of tolling Interstate 80, the lion’s share of those travelers are from out-of-the-state, Sainato said.

Gov. Tom Corbett said he expects the Legislature to renew its discussions on transportation funding when they return for the fall session in September.

Corbett didn’t try to explain why the hurdles that were insurmountable in June will be easier to overcome in the fall. But he did express frustration with what he views as the flawed logic displayed by Democrats who sabotaged the transportation plan over perceived under-funding of mass transit.

“It’s like if you offer a starving man a half of a loaf of bread and he refused to take it because he wants a full loaf,” Corbett said.

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