There are places in Pennsylvania where students get off their school bus and walk across a bridge, the bus crosses the bridge while empty, then the kids get back on and continue their trip to or from school. To do otherwise would exceed the posted weight limit for the bridge.
“That’s Third World stuff,” Brad Mallory, executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said Thursday in Indiana.
There are about 1.5 million Pennsylvania children on buses most school days. “They ride across some 4,000 structurally deficient bridges,” he said.
Mallory also told an Indiana County Chamber of Commerce breakfast audience there are also places in the state where loaded bulk milk trucks and even firetrucks have to follow circuitous routes because structurally deficient bridges stand between them and their destinations.
If the state doesn’t do something about the amount of money dedicated for transportation maintenance, the number of bridges posted with lowered weight limits and closed bridges will increase dramatically, he said.
Mallory said Pennsylvania once had the worst roads in the nation. They improved, he said, but it took time and money.
“But the money is gone,” he said, and the state has been forced to rob Peter to pay Paul — money that was to be used for highway maintenance has been siphoned off to patch up bridges.
Under present plans, the state will not spend enough to even maintain the present surface quality of its roads.
“The roughness of our roads will increase dramatically under current funding,” Mallory predicted.
No one — individuals or businesses — likes to pay higher taxes, Mallory said, but eventually people and companies are willing to pay more taxes out of necessity. The Corbett administration, he said, is proposing to raise an additional $1.8 billion over five years for nearly all phases of transportation in the state, largely by removing the cap on the wholesale tax on gasoline. During that time the 12-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline paid at the pump may actually decrease a couple pennies, he said.
A second part of the Corbett administration’s transportation plan is to do everything possible to spend the available dollars as effectively as possible.
“If you just stand still, things get worse,” Mallory said. So PennDOT has already trimmed about $50 million from its operations through improved productivity and efficiency. “That’s just a start,” he said.
Another money-saving measure being considered is “bridge-bundling” where many bridges would be combined under one contract for repairs or rebuilding.
Mallory filled in Thursday morning for Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch, who was scheduled to be the speaker at the chamber breakfast. Mallory said Schoch was busy in Harrisburg, meeting individually with legislators to explain what the governor’s proposed transportation funding plan would mean to each of their home districts.
The members of the general assembly over the next few months will study what Corbett has proposed and will decide what funding arrangement, and how much money, will be used to repair and maintain the state’s roads, bridges and other transportation assets, Mallory said.
During a question-and-answer period, Young Township supervisor Michael Bertolino told Mallory his township’s liquid fuels allotment — a critical source of funding for township road maintenance — has declined by a couple percent in some of the past few years.
Mallory said the local government road network in Pennsylvania is actually larger than the state-owned highway system, and under Corbett’s plan, liquid fuels payments to municipalities will increase.
Rodney Ruddock, chairman of the Indiana County commission, said he, too, is concerned about the conditions of municipality-owned bridges. And he said the county is prepared to create partnerships — like the one between Indiana and Armstrong counties to make safety improvements on a 1.2-mile section of Route 422 between Indiana and Kittanning — to stretch transportation dollars as far as possible.
Ruddock said motorists driving between the two counties don’t care who’s paying for the $12.1 million improvement project. “All they care about is that the road is safe and secure,” he said.
“I’m very frustrated with (transportation) funding right now at this level,” said state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, adding that public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of legislators. “All we need is one catastrophic event” involving a school bus and a structurally deficient bridge “and we’d jump into action,” he said.
White also said PennDOT District 10 district executive Joe Dubovi and his staff and employees have done a great job maintaining the district’s roads and bridges with the dollars allotted them.
“But you have to give them tools,” White said. “There are only so many Band-Aids.”