Politicians are offering different evaluations of Pennsylvania's transportation infrastructure.
State Auditor General Jack Wagner said motorists in the state are 10 times more likely to pass a structurally deficient bridge than a McDonald's restaurant. The Democrat has sent out a DVD and letter highlighting the findings of his recent statewide tour of such bridges in this past spring and early summer.
"I personally saw cracked concrete, rusted rebar and gaping potholes in major bridges in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Scranton, Johnstown and Pittsburgh," Wagner wrote.
Times Observer photo by Colin Kyler
This bridge in Tiona was recently constructed to replace an older one.
State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-65) said she meets yearly and converses more often than that with regional Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials including Bill Petit, district executive for District 1-0 which includes Warren County. In addition to Dan Glotz, county planner, they look over plans and discuss priorities for bridges and roads.
"I think here in Region 1-0, under Bill Petit and Dan Glotz, we've done a good job making sure that bridges that need replaced are actually being replaced," Rapp said.
Examples Rapp pointed to include the Hickory Street, Fifth Avenue and Glade bridges in Warren. Taken together, she said, the area has seen a lot of bridge repair.
Bill Koller, district bridge engineer, said there are 34 structurally deficient bridges within the county. Of those, four of the six located on Rt. 6 are scheduled for replacement.
Getting the structurally deficient label doesn't mean a minor repair won't solve the problem. Repairs in the county are scheduled from 2014 through 2022, Koller said, but only those through 2014 are funded through the Transportation Improvement Plan which legislators pass each year, most recently in 2011.
Each regional director makes decisions on replacement. They also decide on road maintenance, Rapp said, such as the recent repaving of Conewango Avenue.
Input from legislators helps prioritize projects, Rapp said, and lawmakers will be focused on transportation in the next session. Public pensions will also be a main issue.
Legislators need to address the crisis, Wagner said, before a catastrophe occurs. He cited PennDOT statistics which show the state has almost 6,000 deficient bridges, making it the nation's worst in that category.
Pennsylvania's 8,400 miles of substandard highway makes its road system eighth worst among the 50 states. Instead of being confined to one geographic region of the state, Wagner said there are problems everywhere.
"We must take action now, because the longer we wait, the more it will cost taxpayers," Wagner said.
Within District 1-0, Koller said the percentage of bridges which are structurally deficient has been in the 20s. Now it's approaching down to 11 percent to 12 percent.
Each new year brings more structurally deficient bridges. If the downward trend doesn't continue, Koller said it could lead to an upward trend.
Current trends can be attributed to funding within the last three years. This has included federal stimulus money, Koller said, as well as bond money, gas tax and the motor license fund.
"Those taxes are impacted by inflation," Koller said. "Since gas usage has gone down and our tax is based per gallon, our revenues are not keeping up with inflation."
Overall, Rapp said, PennDOT and other transportation officials have done a good job, especially in the region she represents.
Still, Rapp said some bridges need to be repaired or replaced within the state. Doing so raises the issue of cost.
In November 2006, Wagner said, a state commission identified a $1.7 billion annual shortfall in funding for transportation infrastructure and mass transit services. Then in 2010, a state committee produced a report estimating unfunded transportation needs at $3.5 billion and the gap would continue to grow to $7.2 billion in 10 years if no action is taken.
Vehicle efficiency has led to declining fuel tax revenue, Wagner said, while inflation has created reduced buying power and the Pennsylvania State Police consumes a bigger slice of the Motor License Fund. Those factors, he said, all contribute to the transportation funding gap.
A report released by a state commission in 2011 included funding proposals to bring in $2.5 billion annually for infrastructure projects. One way it would do that, Wagner said, was by taking a cap off the oil company franchise tax.
Hearings about transportation will be held in the House and Senate next session. Each year, Rapp said, the Transportation Committee holds hearings and committee members want to address the issue.
"I'm not on it," Rapp said. "I'm on other committees that keep me busy. But I'm sure they're looking at the auditor general's letter."
So far, Rapp said, she hasn't seen the letter. A number of groups like PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and even citizens have a vested interest in the issue it describes.
Funding new projects rarely proves to be cheap. When looking at more revenue to pay for them, Rapp said it can be a sticking point.
House leadership has informed members that transportation will be a primary focus in the next session, Rapp said, although she could not speak for the Senate. Representatives learned in meetings with House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-28) they would likely begin work on pensions and transportation shortly after swearing-in ceremonies.
"I doubt I'll be on the Transportation Committee next session," Rapp said.
Current committee assignments for Rapp include Education, Veterans Affairs and Finance. However, transportation issues come up through constituent services.
At Rapp's field offices, residents often bring attention to road problems. Rapp said she and her staff respond by working with PennDOT to get them resolved, often going on-site with them.
"We receive calls on a very frequent basis," Rapp said. "In that regard, I'm focused on transportation on a daily basis."
Many state business organizations support infrastructure investment, Wagner said, including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. Robert Latham, executive vice president of the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, testified before a state House of Representatives panel in 2010 that increasing transportation infrastructure spending by $2 billion could lead to the creation of as many as 50,000 jobs.
Like a roof on a house, Koller said it's best to replace bridges before they get bad. Otherwise, it ends up costing a lot of money.
Bridges can cost anywhere from $350 to $600 per square foot with design and construction costs included. An average bridge in the district has 3,300 square feet, Koller said, so a new bridge can cost between $1.25 million to $2 million.
Ultimately, Koller said he would like to see enough funding to waterproof bridges. This would allow for minimal deterioration.
The Russell truss bridge is a large bridge in the county which is scheduled for future replacement. It will be the last in the Allegheny Basin in Warren County to be replaced in the last 30 years, Koller said, and when Hunter's Station is replaced below Tionesta in Forest County they will be the last major crossings of the Allegheny River replaced in District 1-0
As for public pensions, Rapp said legislators are already looking for ways to curtail the crisis. There just aren't enough days to solve the issue in the current session.
State Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-25) and State Sen. Mary Jo White (R-21) could not be reached for comment.