Pa. bridges still the worst in U.S. survey of deficiencies

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Despite recent progress in fixing its substandard bridges, Pennsylvania remains the undisputed national leader in the category, according to a national report released Wednesday.

More than 25 percent of bridges in the state are structurally deficient, giving the state both the highest percentage and greatest number of deficient bridges in the U.S., according to the report.

"The Fix We're In For: The State of Our Nation's Bridges" was released by Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of 500 groups seeking an overhaul of national transportation policy.

According to the report, 5,906 of Pennsylvania's 22,271 bridges (26.5 percent) are structurally deficient, meaning at least one of three components -- the superstructure, substructure or deck -- was rated "poor" by inspectors. The next-closest state was Oklahoma at 22 percent.

Structurally deficient bridges are considered safe but have one or more elements of deterioration that could lead to weight restrictions or full closure.

Under Gov. Ed Rendell, the state made bridge spending a priority, with 1,600 replacements and 1,200 rehabilitation projects from 2008 to 2010, according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation statistics.

"We have started to make a difference," Allen Biehler, former state PennDOT secretary, said on a conference call discussing the bridge report.

But continued progress is uncertain because of a severe funding reduction caused by the state's failure to win approval for tolls on Interstate 80, the end of the federal stimulus program and the state's budget deficit.

Gov. Tom Corbett's nominee for transportation secretary, Barry Schoch, acknowledged the challenge in continuing to reduce the number of deficient bridges.

He said Mr. Corbett will name a task force next month that will be assigned to quickly develop long-term funding strategies for all transportation sectors, including bridges.

The principal funding source, the gasoline tax, is in danger of becoming obsolete because of higher vehicle gas mileage standards and alternative fuels that will continue to reduce consumption and, with it, tax revenue, Mr. Schoch said.

The task force will be asked to find "creative funding sources that will address the problem" with the hope of presenting findings to the Legislature later this year, he said.

For the time being, the state has another year of bond funding for its Accelerated Bridge Program and will repair or replace about 400 bridges this year, he said.

It makes sense to spend money on upkeep now because repairs become more expensive if they are deferred, Mr. Schoch said. "It's no different than your home."

Fourteen Pennsylvania counties were among the top 100 worst counties in the U.S. for percentage of deficient bridges, including Clearfield, Lawrence, Fayette, Butler, Washington and Greene, according to the report.

Nationally, 69,223 bridges, or 11.5 percent, are deficient, and federal and state governments are not spending nearly enough to keep the total from growing, the authors said. They quoted a Federal Highway Administration estimate that in 2009, a $70.9 billion backlog of needed repair work existed, while the federal Highway Bridge Program invested just $5.2 billion.

The average age of bridges in the U.S. is 42 years, and most are designed to last about 50 years.

On an average day, nearly 23 million vehicles cross deficient bridges in Pennsylvania. Across the U.S., 282.6 million vehicles do so, the report said.

Locally, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of state bridge data in August found that in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties, 1,246 of the 4,284 bridges, or 29 percent, were rated structurally deficient.

But the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, in last year's update of the region's four-year Transportation Improvement Program, slashed anticipated road and bridge spending by 32 percent, and local officials have expressed concern that reduced funding could reverse progress made in recent years.

PennDOT District 11, made up of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, reported recently that the number of deficient bridges in the district was at its lowest point in years and will continue to fall this year.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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