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Rendell says 1,145 Pa. bridges need immediate repair

Gov. Rendell yesterday identified 1,145 bridges that he said were in need of immediate repair and asked the legislature to borrow $600 million to pay part of the bill.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell yesterday identified 1,145 bridges that he said were in need of immediate repair and asked the legislature to borrow $600 million to pay part of the bill.

The new list, drawn from a tally of 6,000 bridges previously identified as deficient, is an effort by Rendell to obtain more funding to speed up the reconstruction work.

His proposal calls for spending an additional $200 million a year for three years, to be combined with federal road-repair funds.

The "structurally deficient" bridges include 91 in this region.

Bucks County has the most, with 35 targeted for work, followed by 26 in Chester County, 15 in Montgomery County, nine in Philadelphia, and six in Delaware County. Most are smaller bridges, often spanning railways and streams.

At a news conference, Rendell cited last year's Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13 people, and the recent closing of an elevated section of I-95 because of a crack in a steel-reinforced concrete column, as evidence that delayed repairs can be disruptive and, at worst, deadly.

"We know what can happen when bridge needs are not addressed; we see tragedies like Minnesota," Rendell said. "We have to repair our bridges, and we have to repair them now."

Bridges that are structurally deficient are not in danger of collapse but could face closing or reduced weight loads if they are allowed to deteriorate further.

Rendell first proposed a bridge-repair plan in February with a call to fix 40 percent of the 6,000 structurally deficient bridges by 2018. He called for addressing more than 1,000 aging bridges as a first step, and that was the list released yesterday.

Senate Republicans, who control that body, acknowledged repairs were necessary but expressed reluctance to borrow more funds. Rendell wants the funding approved before the legislature is scheduled to break for the summer on June 30; the debate is likely to play out in budget negotiations over the next six weeks.

Among the structural problems that need to be fixed on the 1,145 bridges are deteriorated concrete piers, ramps, worn expansion joints on decks, and rusting steel sections that need painting, according to officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"The crisis is invisible to the average person," said Rich Kirkpatrick, a PennDot spokesman.

PennDot engineers chose the bridges listed based on a risk analysis of all the state's structurally deficient spans.

They examined the type of bridge, the size, traffic volume, the bridge's importance to the highway system, and its closing's potential impact on commerce. Each was rated on a zero-to-nine scale, with nine being excellent and zero as beyond "corrective action."

All of the bridges on the list have a rating of four or below on one or more of the three central parts of a bridge: the piers, the deck and the superstructure - the frame on top that holds up the deck.

The bridges run the gamut from major interstate multi-lane bridges - though none in this region - to two-lane bridges over small water courses.

The principal and interest on the bond to cover $600 million would be paid through a special bridge account within the state's Motor License Fund, Rendell said.

Senate Republican leaders said they were reluctant to take on such a high level of borrowing. "We will be very cautious about burdening the Motor License Fund with debt payments," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "Our numbers people are reviewing the proposal, and the most recent Motor License Fund data, to see what we believe that fund can handle in terms of debt payments."

But Rendell said that if the state put off the repairs, the problem would only get more costly - and potentially more hazardous - down the road.

"Given the relatively low cost of borrowing now, combined with the 12 percent-a-year inflation rate for construction materials, the numbers favor doing the borrowing the governor is calling for," Kirkpatrick said.

The state funds would be supplemented by federal funds, and the actual cost of the work would be far more than $600 million, but that estimate was not available yesterday, Kirkpatrick said.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of bridges in the nation that are over 50 years old, and it leads the nation in the number of structurally deficient bridges.

With the growing number of older bridges needing attention, Rendell said, unless repair work is accelerated, the state will never be able to catch up and begin to reduce the overall number of troubled spans.

Rendell made the announcement standing near one of the bridges in need of repair, the George Wade Bridge, which carries I-81 - and 71,000 motorists a day - over the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg.