Strapped PennDOT fixing bridges first

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Pennsylvania is steadily reducing its huge inventory of deficient bridges, but statewide and locally, the roads are getting worse.

Nearly a quarter of the 2,569 state road miles in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties were rated "poor" in 2010, based on the International Roughness Index. Increases in "poor" miles occurred in 2009 and 2010 after years of steady decreases.

Statewide, "poor" road miles declined from nearly 18,000 in 1996 to about 6,500 in 2008. But the trend toward better roads reversed itself in 2009 and 2010, with more than 8,000 miles rated "poor" last year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The decline in road quality coincides with the state's increased emphasis on repairing and replacing bridges, which began in 2008 under Gov. Ed Rendell.

Since then, the number of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania has fallen from more than 6,000 to 5,310 as of March, according to PennDOT. In District 11, made up of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, the number of deficient bridges decreased from 608 to 480 as of this year.

Newly appointed PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said the state, with inadequate funding, had to make a choice. "Obviously, we're concerned about the smoothness of roads. But a bigger safety issue is the structural stability of bridges," he said.

The emphasis on bridges "has been at the expense of our roadways. We realize this is a pattern that should not continue. It's pointing us in a bad direction," Mr. Schoch said.

In a presentation last week at a forum sponsored by Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, Jeff Karr, District 11's assistant executive for maintenance, said $150 million in bridge spending is proposed for this year, fixing or replacing 55 deficient or obsolete spans.

Meanwhile, the district plans to resurface 114 miles, only 4.4 percent of its road mileage and a fraction of the 651 miles currently rated "poor" under the roughness index. At that rate, state roads would be repaved only once every 20 years.

"We simply don't have enough revenue to address the roadways that are becoming deficient," said District 11 executive Dan Cessna. "We need more money. We simply can't hold it together with the current revenue stream. Conditions are going to continue to deteriorate."

State transportation departments have been hamstrung by flat or declining revenues because gasoline taxes, their principal funding source, don't grow with inflation.

Pennsylvanians pay about 51 cents per gallon in federal and state taxes whether the gallon costs $2 or $4 or $6. The tax hasn't changed since 1997, losing purchasing power as inflation drove up construction costs.

With better fuel efficiency and a poor economy, people are buying less gasoline, further putting the squeeze on transportation budgets.

Federal mandates for even more fuel efficiency, and the rising popularity of electric and hybrid cars, will amplify the impact, Mr. Schoch said.

Right now, the prospects for increasing Pennsylvania's road maintenance budgets, or even maintaining its progress on bridge repairs, look cloudy.

Congress is overdue to pass a long-term surface transportation law to replace the one that expired in 2009 and has since been extended seven times.

Because of dwindling gas tax revenue, the federal Highway Trust Fund has required $30 billion in bailouts from the government's general fund just to maintain current transportation spending levels.

Some lawmakers want a new bill with lower spending levels that would not require future bailouts. That could cut overall transportation funds by 30 percent. It would translate to a $300 million to $400 million annual loss to the state, "which would be devastating," Mr. Schoch said.

PennDOT expects to award about $2 billion in statewide construction contracts this year, including $995 million for bridge projects and $770 million for highways.

In three of the last four years, spending on bridges has exceeded spending on highways, the exception being 2009, when the federal stimulus program skewed the numbers.

A recent report by a national reform group, Transportation for America, noted that Pennsylvania had both the highest percentage and greatest number of deficient bridges in the country.

On an average day, nearly 23 million vehicles cross deficient bridges in Pennsylvania, the report said.

On top of the uncertainty about federal funding, the state's Accelerated Bridge Program, financed by borrowing in 2008, is set to expire in June 2012.

Mr. Schoch is heading a commission appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett to explore ways to raise additional funds for transportation improvements.

It will make recommendations to the governor in August. It will also describe consequences of failing to act, Mr. Schoch said. "If we don't do anything, we're faced with further deterioration."

Jon Schmitz: 412-263-1868


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