Officials dedicated the new $21 million Point Marion Bridge over the Monongahela River yesterday, straining at times to be heard over the sickly rattle of an adjacent 79-year-old bridge that is being retired.
The contrast was striking between the bright blue Parker truss span and its feeble, rusting predecessor, which was described by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler as the worst bridge on the state highway system.
"What a great day to be in the Mon Valley," said state Sen. J. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville, one of hundreds who gathered on the new bridge for a ribbon-cutting.
Amid the plaudits for the new two-lane span that carries Route 88 between Fayette and Greene counties was an undercurrent of concern about future transportation funding.
State Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, spoke of lawmakers' need to make tough decisions to raise money for repairing aging infrastructure, invoking the August 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.
State Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, took it a step further.
"If we are not willing to invest in gas taxes, toll some of our interstates, suck it up and gut it out and raise the revenue to run this state we are not going to have these types of facilities," he said. "We are going to have the types of facilities, as Sen. Kasunic said, that wind up in the river."
After the ceremony, Mr. Biehler said he was concerned about Congress delaying action on a new six-year transportation authorization bill. The old one expired Sept. 30 and Congress approved a stopgap one-month extension that cut funding by 30 percent, he said.
"It needs to happen and it needs to happen quickly or all of us will be slowing down the good work we've been doing," he said, saying the inaction could halt ongoing projects and confound efforts to plan future improvements. He said the state expects by the end of next week to resubmit its application to the Federal Highway Administration for permission to impose tolls on Interstate 80.
The tolls were a major part of Act 44, passed by the Legislature in 2007 to answer a transportation funding crisis. Without them, funding for highways, bridges and transit will fall from $900 million to $450 million next July.
In his remarks, Mr. Biehler told the audience that despite some progress, Pennsylvania retains the dubious distinction of leading the nation in structurally deficient bridges -- about 5,800 of them.
"Now we can check another one off the list," he said.
The new bridge has a two-lane concrete deck, a vast improvement over the narrow, patched-up steel grate surface on the old span. It will be a key link for truck traffic generated by the region's nascent Marcellus shale gas drilling industry, Mr. Kasunic said.
The new span also has a wide walkway to accommodate pedestrians and users of nearby bike paths.
The walkway won't open until after Nov. 9, when the old bridge is scheduled to be blasted into the river, said Darin Glitz, an assistant construction engineer for PennDOT. Officials don't want pedestrians near the explosive charges being placed on the old span.
Jon Schmitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868.