In our five-county area, 29 percent of the bridges are rated structurally deficient

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The bridge on Babcock Boulevard over Girtys Run in Shaler is not the stuff of a picture postcard.

Eighty-three feet long, the steel girder span is 80 years old, and showing it. Its most recent inspection found "serious" deterioration of structural elements, and on a 100-point sufficiency scale, with 100 being the top score, it rated 4.

Replacement of the bridge has been delayed until 2013 or 2014 because of a state transportation funding crisis. But that happens to be one of the rosier scenarios in the region's bridge network.

For at least 76 other bridges with serious deficiencies in the five-county Pittsburgh area, no rehabilitation or replacement projects are planned because there's no money for them.

They range from big, like the 59-year-old Elizabeth Bridge, which carries 17,000 vehicles per day over the Monongahela River, to small, like the 10-foot-long span over a stream on Stiffin Hill Road in Beaver Falls. It was built in 1930, has a sufficiency rating of just 2, and no funding is identified to fix or replace it.

Gov. Ed Rendell will visit Pittsburgh and other sites in Western Pennsylvania this morning as part of a weeklong, statewide bus tour to call attention to the funding shortfall and urge the Legislature to address it at a special session later this month.

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

That means that at least one bridge element -- its superstructure, substructure or deck -- was found by inspectors to be in poor or worse-than-poor condition.

Despite a recent effort to focus its limited transportation funding on bridge rehabilitation, Pennsylvania still has more than 5,600 structurally deficient bridges on state roads, the highest total in the nation. The state's 22 percent deficiency rate is nearly double the national average.

Another 2,159 bridges on locally owned roads in the state are considered deficient. One study has estimated the backlog of needed bridge work at $11 billion.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation estimates that repairs of 449 bridges statewide will be delayed by the funding shortfall caused by the federal government's refusal to allow tolls on Interstate 80.

The tolls were a key piece of Act 44, passed by the Legislature in 2007 to provide adequate funding in hopes of stemming or reversing decades of decline in the state's transportation infrastructure.

The failure to toll I-80 stanched the flow of Act 44 money into the state's highway and bridge programs by about $300 million per year. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, in a recent update of the region's four-year Transportation Improvement Program, slashed anticipated road and bridge spending by 32 percent.

Because of the statewide focus on bridges and the one-time infusion of federal economic stimulus money last year, PennDOT was "slowly gaining ground" on its backlog of deficient bridges, said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, assistant district executive for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

A 32 percent cut will have a "huge impact" on bridge work, she said. "If we don't have that level of investment, there's no doubt the structurally deficient percentage is going to go up."

Major repairs are under way or imminent for some of the region's worst-rated bridges.

A $17.3 million rehabilitation of the 79-year-old Boston Bridge over the Youghiogheny River between Elizabeth Township and Versailles will begin soon. Its sufficiency rating is 2 out of 100. A contract for repairs to the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, 83 years old and also rated 2, is expected to be awarded next year, PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said.

The deck and superstructure of the Boston Bridge were rated worse-than-poor in the most recent inspection, as was the superstructure of the Ambridge-Aliquippa span.

A contract for design and construction of a new Charleroi-Monessen Bridge was awarded last month. The 104-year-old bridge was abruptly closed in February 2009 because of fears it might collapse.

Unity in Westmoreland County will cut the ribbon on a new $4.6 million Monastery Drive bridge on Aug. 16, said Mike O'Barto, chairman of the board of supervisors. The old bridge had the 15th-worst sufficiency score in the region, 4.

But at least 14 other structurally deficient bridges are in the township, according to the state's database.

And for every bridge problem that is being addressed, multiple others are not.

The Koppel Bridge over the Beaver River has a sufficiency rating of 3 and its superstructure was rated poor in its most recent inspection. No funding has been found to rehabilitate or replace the 1915-vintage bridge, which carries about 6,300 vehicles per day.

Likewise, the Elizabeth Bridge, with a superstructure rated poor and a sufficiency rating of 29.1, and the relatively newer Interstate 79 Neville Island Bridge, which PennDOT says is in need of $33 million of preservation work and painting.

In all, PennDOT has identified 76 bridges in the five counties that cannot be rehabilitated or replaced because of the reduction in Act 44 funding. The average age of the bridges is 72 years, and combined they carry more than 340,000 vehicles on a typical day.

Ms. Moon-Sirianni said PennDOT is doing what it can to make minor repairs.

"We're trying to Band-Aid them as much as possible" to avoid imposing weight limits or closing them altogether, she said.

PennDOT is required by federal law to inspect every bridge that is 20 feet or longer at least every two years. Some older and more deteriorated structures are checked more frequently -- every year or every six months, said district bridge engineer Lou Ruzzi.

The state ramped up its inspections in 2005 after a bridge over Interstate 70 in Washington County collapsed, injuring five people.

The danger of decaying bridges was more tragically illustrated in Minnesota in 2007 when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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