Officials express frustration over bridge repairs

Local bridges are in desperate need of repair – but the simple fact is, there’s just not enough money to do it.

And while Lycoming County pays for county bridge inspections, nothing seems to come of it once the county hands the reports with corrective action plans to the various municipalities, which own the bridges.

If municipalities don’t act to fix their bridges, the county might stop inspecting smaller bridges, said Lycoming County Transportation Planner Mark Murawski.

There are three main problems associated with the issue: lack of funding, lack of education to municipalities and a lack of follow-through from municipalities.

The first problem: There’s no federal funding for bridges under 20 feet in length, and the state’s funding isn’t in much better shape, Murawski said. There are 14 such bridges in the county that are in desperate need of repair.

Optimally, they should be replaced, but it would cost more than $5 million to do so, Murawski said. There’s just not enough money in place to do that, so the county is going to partner up with the municipalities to do some creative thinking to explore financing, he said.

This discussion came up at Tuesday’s Lycoming County commissioners’ meeting in which Murawski asked the commissioners to approve a professional service agreement with Bassett Engineering to inspect the smaller, locally owned bridges between 8 and 20 feet long for $22,260. The commissioners may approve the agreement Thursday.

There are 104 bridges Bassett inspects on a rotating basis, depending on which ones are in the most severe condition. The “bad 14” bridges need annual inspection due to their poor condition and are in Williamsport and Cascade, Clinton, Fairfield, Franklin, Jordan, Lewis, Lycoming, Penn and Pine townships.

Commissioner Jeff Wheeland expressed frustration that the county is expending money to inspect bridges that, a year later, are in the same decrepit condition.

Another issue is there aren’t enough signs posting weight limits for bridges – which is a big problem with bridges that already are structurally deficient, Murawski said. It also is the municipalities’ responsibility to post signs if a bridge can’t carry a 40-ton load.

Of the 14 bridges, eight should have weight-limit signs posted, according to the inspection last year. Murawski said it’s possible municipalities have added the signs since then. The eight bridges are in Clinton, Fairfield, Franklin, Jordan, Penn and Pine townships.

The second problem: not enough education from the county to municipalities on how to fix the situation. To that end, the county is conducting an outreach effort this fall with the municipalities to identify their bad bridges and work to find a solution, Murawski said.

The third problem: lack of follow-through. While the county does these inspections, they have no “legal hammer” to make municipalities follow through on the findings.

If the municipalities still don’t fix the bridges after the county’s outreach in the fall, the county’s patience may run out, Murawski said. The county may stop doing the smaller bridge inspections, Murawski said. And it would be legal. There’s no federal requirement to inspect those bridges.

Even though Murawski recognizes the safety issue, “We want to make sure the investment we’re making in county dollars will produce dividends in terms of improved bridges, because public safety is at stake,” Murawski said.

Murawski is calling on state legislators to make transportation a priority. He fears if a decision isn’t made soon, it could drag on for years since it’ll soon be an election year and no one is likely to touch it, then.

“Harrisburg needs to act now,” Murawski said.

Although the federal government doesn’t provide funding for smaller bridges, there may be good news for transportation reform overall. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, called for passage Tuesday of a key budget bill on the Senate floor that could upgrade bridges across Pennsylvania. The Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill is expected to get a vote this week.

Structurally deficient bridges aren’t good for commerce, health, safety or the economy, Casey said.

Will rural areas get the funding they need?

“Tell your representatives to get the legislation passed,” Casey said.