Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How safe are Pennsylvania bridges?

After initially claiming information about the condition of Pennsylvania bridges was a state secret, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has released safety ratings of 54 steel deck bridges located in the state.

PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler announced Tuesday that both the "sufficiency" and "condition" ratings for the 54 bridges similar in design to the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota have been posted at

"This list represents the first step toward providing additional data about Pennsylvania's 25,000 state maintained bridges, " Biehler said in a statement. "In the coming weeks, we will add the data for the rest of our large bridge inventory."

Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 in the nation in structurally deficient bridges.

Pennsylvania has nearly 6,000 crumbling bridges, according to the state. Basically, one of out every four bridges in the state is considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in need of some level of repair.

Approximately 800 bridges have weight or lane restrictions and 54 are closed, according to Biehler.

PennDOT's Web posting contains a glossary of terms used in bridge charts, a drawing of a steel truss bridge with components identified and the chart with individual bridge information, including the sufficiency rating and three condition ratings numbers, according to Biehler.

"Our bridge engineers use these numbers to manage our system and help us decide on prioritizing bridge needs," Biehler said. "The numbers should not be viewed as a measure of whether a bridge is safe or not. If a bridge is open, it is safe for travel."

That's probably what transportation officials in Minnesota said about their interstate bridge before it collapsed Aug. 1.

The truth is the Rendell administration has diverted money for road and bridge repairs to subsidize failing mass transit systems over the past five years. Bridges and roads don't vote. But the high-paid union workers who drive buses, trolleys and trains and the politically-connected officials who run the bloated mass transit systems do vote -- and contribute generously to politicians.

Keep your fingers crossed, or better yet, say a prayer, next time you cross a bridge in Pennsylvania.

I'm sure Biehler doesn't want to be known as the man who ran PennDOT when a bridge collapsed, but this is the same man in charge in February when thousands of motorists were stranded on Interstate 78 during an ice storm.

Biehler says his people are doing extra inspections of the 28 steel deck truss bridges PennDOT owns that are similar in design to the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed in Minnesota. PennDOT has also asked the owners of the 26 other steel deck truss bridges in the state to inspect them right away.

All state-owned bridges are inspected every two years and more frequently if a bridge has serious deterioration, Biehler said.

And all the talk about raising the gas tax to provide more money for bridge and road repairs is a smoke-screen. There's plenty of money coming in from the state and national gas tax. The problem is that politicians use the money for pork projects instead of maintenance. Giving them more money to waste is not the answer.

In 2006, PennDOT spent $558 million on bridge projects. But the state poured nearly $1 billion to subsidize inefficient mass transit systems.

The much-ballyhooed plan to toll Interstate 80, which may not happen if two Pennsylvania congressmen have their way, would provide an additional $532 million per year over the next 10 years to repair roads and bridges, according to Biehler.

I'm not doubting Biehler's sincerity, but I know how government works. Politicians have a bad habit of diverting money from needed maintenance work to more high-profile projects that will help them get elected. I'm sure it's the same everywhere, including Minnesota.

No comments: