$335 million for bridges

Pennsylvania's are nation's most deficient; lessons of collapses still loom

Gov. Ed Rendell has signed "buy now, pay later" legislation to provide an extra $335 million to repair 411 bridges classified as structurally deficient.

Thirty of the bridges are in Allegheny County -- seven on the Parkway East/Interstate 376, including one at the Rodi Road interchange that served as a symbolic backdrop for yesterday's outdoor signing ceremony.

Parts of the concrete piers have crumbled away, exposing a lattice of reinforcing rods. The piers, deck and expansion dams will be repaired next year during the final phase of the four-year Parkway East rehabilitation between Downtown and Monroeville.

Besides bridges, the special $350 million bond issue agreed upon during budget negotiations last week will increase aviation grants to small airports by $5 million for projects including building new hangars, and increase the Rail Transportation Assistance Program by $10 million for projects like adding capacity to privately owned freight railroad lines.

It represents the first major bond issue by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation since 1979, when former Gov. Dick Thornburgh put an end to borrowing and put highway and bridge spending on a "pay-as-you-go" basis.

The money is to be repaid over time from Motor License Fund revenue already earmarked for bridges. Consequently, the debt payments will leave less money available for bridges in future years.

"We're not borrowing, we're investing," Mr. Rendell said in response to a question. "We're investing in our assets, economic development, our future," adding that the state "cannot afford" a disaster like the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people last August or the unexpected failure of an approach span on the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh in February. While nobody was hurt in the latter incident, traffic has been disrupted and repair costs are approaching $10 million.

He also cited a structural problem that closed a heavily traveled I-95 bridge in Philadelphia for three days as "a lesson to all of us."

Although PennDOT spending on bridges has approximately tripled during Mr. Rendell's time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania still ranks No. 1 in the nation in most bridges 75 years old or older and most structurally deficient and/or functionally obsolete bridges, with 6,000.

PennDOT estimates that the cost of bringing all state-owned bridges up to current engineering and safety standards exceeds $11 billion.

The governor said the added investment in bridges will put "tens of thousands of people to work."

Mr. Rendell was joined at the signing ceremony by state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and state Sen. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville, minority chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. A half-dozen colleagues were on hand, as well as Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

In addition to the Parkway East bridges, the "Rebuild Pennsylvania" initiative includes four I-79 bridges in Marshall and some smaller bridges, including rehabilitating Pine Creek Bridge in McCandless and Long Run Bridge in White Oak.

Nine PennDOT-owned bridges in Washington County are on the list, including the I-70 bridge over Zediker Station Road in South Strabane, and six bridges in Westmoreland County, including the Route 366 bridge over Little Pucketa Creek in New Kensington.

A list of all 411 bridges can be found at www.dot.state.pa.us. Click on the "Rebuild PA Bridges" tab at the lower right-hand corner of the main page.

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com . First Published July 8, 2008 4:00 AM


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