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August 23, 2013

Bridge weight limits worry farmers

WILMORE — The need for pension reform and legislation to limit farmer liability over hunting issues took a back seat on Friday with Cambria County farmers to news of new weight restrictions on placed by PennDOT on more than 1,000 bridges statewide.

For David Myers, a Summerhill Township dairy farmer milking 300 Holsteins daily, trouble getting the milk truck in will be huge for his operation.

“Thursday we had three tractor-t    railers in this road, all over 20 tons,” Myers said. “Every day we have a 20-ton milk truck in here.”

Myers was the host for Friday’s Cambria County Farm Bureau Legislative Farm Tour, an annual event designed to put farmers in direct contact with county, state and national legislators.

While a need for pension reform at the state level was at the top of the agenda distributed by Farm Bureau director Martin Yahner, it was the need for increased revenue to fund transportation that struck a cord with the dairy, meat and grain producers countywide.

“We are very concerned, especially if they come in and start posting weight limits,” said Myers, a third-generation farmer.

A list of impacted bridges released Thursday by PennDOT shows a span over the North Branch of the Little Conemaugh River in Wilmore as the only one in Cambria County to be impacted by the new weight restrictions.

Myers’ farm is just off Route 160 and a few miles outside Wilmore.

Statewide, more than 1,000 state and locally owned bridges will be impacted, according to information provided by PennDOT.

The bridges are not necessarily in danger of collapsing, but the restrictions are needed to prolong their viability in light of the Legislature’s inability to adopt and fund a  transportation bill, said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

“The restrictions are being imposed on the worst ones to buy time, to reduce the damage to the bridges,” Wozniak told the farmers. “We are running out of time.”

As minority chairman of the state Senate Transportation Commission, Wozniak has been lobbying for some time in the hopes something will be done to increase revenue for highways and bridges. The gasoline tax has not been increased since 1997, while road-building costs and vehicle miles per gallon have skyrocketed, he said.

Yahner, a Patton area crops farmer, said dependable highways and bridges are vital to the state’s agricultural industry.

“These recent bridge classifications as insufficient and the weight restrictions will result in detours, and it will be very expensive,” Yahner said. “As an organization, Farm Bureau understands there has to be new revenue.”

Also high on the Farm Bureau’s priority list countywide and at the state level is a need to get pension costs under control, said Yahner.

Everyone, including farmers will get hit hard in the pocketbook if the state does not address its two public pension systems, which have a combined unfunded liability of $45 billion, Yahner said.

“We’re asking the House and Senate to act on this,” Yahner said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Limiting liability of farmers remains a concern, with Yahner calling for steps to prevent unfair prosecution of a landowner who permits hunting and a state violation occurs.

Farm Bureau is also seeking legislation recognizing those at a hay ride, corn maze and similar event assume a risk of injury.

Top concerns

What farmers think is needed:

• Transportation bill with more revenue from increased fees or fuel taxes.

• Pension reform to avoid increased property taxes.

• Legislation to prevent prosecution of landowners for incidents involving hunters.

• Liability protection for agritourism enterprises.

• Authorization for development of wind farms on state preserved farms.

Kathy Mellott covers agricultural issues for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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