The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 13, 2013

George A. Hancock | Pennsylvania’s bridges to nowhere

— Bridges, structurally deficient ones, that is, have been on the minds of a lot of Pennsylvanians lately as our leaders mull over ways to financially support a long-overdue and tremendously costly infrastructure-repair plan. 

But motorists aren’t the only ones concerned about bridges that cross waterways and highways.

Runners and those who walk for exercise utilize bridges, too. Several of my running routes in and around Windber and Paint boroughs  traverse many bridges.

Routinely, Wednesday mornings find me running along Horn Road. I cross three bridges in a half-mile span just to reach Horn Road. Eliminate any of those bridges and I would discover detours that add miles to a friendly workout.

The numerous races I enter in communities throughout Cambria and Somerset counties serve as vivid reminders of just how many bridges we have in these parts.

Both Morley’s Run and the October Greater Johnstown Community YMCA marathon either run beneath or near historic Stone Bridge near the city’s downtown.

A somber thought always strikes me as I run beneath that structure. Many individuals perished there when trapped by debris and fire from the infamous 1889  Johnstown Flood.

But more to my point, the Pennsylvania Legislature has become a poster child for term limits. Any state that wishes to examine bloated, expensive state government should peer toward Harrisburg.

Once again, our numerous, overpaid legislators have failed to address key transportation issues during a session of the General Assembly. One of those issues is bridges. Our  legislators are the architects of a bridges-to-nowhere movement.

Pennsylvania has more than 25,000 state-owned bridges. Numerous other bridges are maintained by local municipalities. Scalp Level Borough, Richland Township, the city of Johnstown and many other locales have aging bridges, many of which are badly in need of repairs.

Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for the number of bridges. But more importantly, a recent analysis reveals that it also leads the nation in structurally deficient bridges.

What does “structurally deficient” mean?

A structurally deficient span shows deterioration to one of its major components. The bridge itself is not structurally unsafe and can continue to be used, sometimes with  decreased weight restrictions.

While PennDOT, to its credit, is quick to close unsafe bridges, structurally deficient bridges need repairs, and funding those repairs is always an issue. Most local municipalities, in particular, lack the resources to finance these maintenance jobs.

In continuing efforts aimed at rectifying this serious issue, PennDOT announced during the recent Pennsylvania budget squabbles a two-year plan to rebuild 600 structurally deficient bridges. It is currently accepting contract bids on these projects.

Repairing 600 bridges is all well and good, but Pennsylvania has 25,000 state-owned bridges. What about the rest of them?

And what about the numerous other bridges maintained by local municipalities, or by no one at all? Who is going to pay for those repairs?

I routinely “run over” another municipal issue: Many locales have areas where water from creeks, streams and other waterways is piped beneath road surfaces. These road sections, while technically not bridges, serve the same function.

These areas are subject to the same forces that batter bridges. Bridges collapse and these pipe sections also subside. Repairs are expensive. Detours during maintenance are lengthy.

How do we fund these projects?

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed a gradual 25-cent tax increase – some like to call it uncapping the oil company franchise tax – on a gallon of gasoline.

In theory, this proposal would raise sorely needed funds for these bridge projects. However, recent history reveals that consumers cut back on everything when gasoline retail prices climb.

This consumer action adversely affects our entire economy.

The Pennsylvania Legislature offered no credible solution before adjourning for the summer. For now and the foreseeable future, our only recourse is to gingerly drive, run and walk across Pennsylvania’s bridges.

George A. Hancock of Scalp Level Borough is an occasional contributor to the editorial page.     


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