County’s shaky bridges make list
State transportation department identifies structurally deficient spans.
Last Modified: April 22. 2013 1:47PM
State Auditor General Jack Wagner recently singled out the high number of deficient bridges in Luzerne County, urging more funding to address the problem.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has identified 163 bridges classified as structurally deficient in the county, the release said. The state owns 108 bridges on the list, and most of the rest belong to the county.
Structurally deficient bridges are considered safe for travel but need costly repairs or replacement to meet current standards, the state says. Many require weight limits.
State Democrats are pushing for a $2.8 billion plan that would upgrade the state’s infrastructure and create thousands of jobs.
The state plans to bid contracts to rebuild more than 600 structurally deficient bridges statewide over the next two years, said transportation department spokesman James May.
This work will include eight bridges along Interstate 81 in Luzerne County and a bridge on the state Route 309 northbound center city exit, May said.
The number of structurally deficient bridges statewide has decreased from a high of 6,034 to 4,813 as of March, he said.
The auditor general says declining revenue from fuel taxes due to vehicle efficiency and other issues have created a gap in state funding for transportation infrastructure. A state report issued by the governor’s office in 2010 estimated unfunded transportation needs will grow to $7.2 billion in a decade without supplemental funding.
About 50 county-owned bridges are labeled structurally deficient, said county Chief Engineer Joe Gibbons. The county owns 310 bridges, ranging from boxy concrete culverts over streams to about 80 spanning more than 20 feet.
County officials have chipped away at the deficiency problem but are limited by funding, he said.
Bridges more than 20 feet long are eligible for federal funding as it becomes available, but replacement typically takes about seven years from conception to completion because of federal requirements, Gibbons said.
For example, the county is currently replacing the Breaker Road Bridge in Hanover Township and the Mill Hill Road Bridge in Sugarloaf Township, but the design started around 2003. Basic two-lane replacement bridges over 20 feet that don’t span a river typically cost about $1.5 million to $2 million, he said.
The federal government also reimburses most of the cost to replace flood-damaged bridges, Gibbons said.
A dozen county bridges damaged by June 2006 flooding have been replaced. Four damaged in September 2011 flooding are in design, and the two more are in the planning stage, Gibbons said.
Gibbons hesitates to tap the county’s limited pot of borrowed capital funds to replace bridges, preferring to use the money as a local match for grants to resurface county roads. Most county roads are not eligible for federal funding, he said.
The county replaced the single-lane Mill Mountain Road Bridge in Butler Township in 2011 by designing the repair and circumventing the federal replacement process. If the county had opted to tear down the old bridge, the new one would have to be two lanes and cost an estimated $1.5 million due to federal design requirements.
Instead, the county designed a new floor system replicating the one used when the bridge was built a century ago, reducing the cost to about $30,000.
Gibbons said his department is using a similar in-house approach to restore the Shady Hill Road Bridge in Fairmount Township.
“We’ll return it to safe operating condition, where it will work perfectly fine for the traffic needs in that area,” he said.
With funding shortages, Gibbons believes officials at all levels must prioritize bridge replacements. One-mile sections of streams may have several bridges, which may warrant the elimination of those that aren’t essential for public safety, he said. Doing away with non-essential bridges also would reduce waterway obstructions during flooding.
Gibbons said he also tries to focus on bridges needed to prevent extreme detours.
The federal government requires inspections every two years on all bridges over 20 feet, and the county also meets that standard for bridges under 20 feet, Gibbons said.
The county ended up owning and maintaining most of its bridges during the Great Depression, when the court ordered a takeover because townships and municipalities didn’t have the financial means to take care of the structures, Gibbons said.
On the web
View a list of structurally deficient bridges at www.dot.state.
pa.us/. Click on the “bridge inspection” link and “bridge information.”