The $5 county fee: A bipartisan solution to pressing local bridge need 

When something goes wrong at your house or with your vehicle, your inclination is to get the issue fixed so you can continue to enjoy the benefits of that appliance or vehicle.

The same is true at a higher level, for example, with thousands of bridges across the state that everyone relies on for their daily trips. 

Back in 2013, elected officials from both parties reached a landmark agreement to do just this, take needed steps to pay for much needed fixes to our road and bridge system.

This is known as Act 89 and while it required motorists to pay more, it has translated into thousands of miles of improved pavements and thousands of rehabilitated and reconstructed bridges that had pressing maintenance needs.  

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, there are multiple jurisdictions when it comes to managing the road and bridge system. One of Act 89’s features allows counties to generate needed resources to deal with their own pressing problems: a huge statewide backlog of maintenance to county and locally-owned bridges. 

Local and county governments are responsible for nearly 6,500 bridges and nearly 32 percent, or just over 2,000, are in critical need of maintenance.

These bridges are categorized as structurally deficient — they are safe – at the moment – but unless the maintenance work is done soon, they may have to be weight restricted or eventually closed. Those outcomes play havoc, especially with farm and rural communities.

A weight restricted or closed bridge means farmers, delivery people, emergency responders, school buses and every day drivers are subject to lengthy detours and much inconvenience.

Avoiding that havoc was the reason for the bipartisan agreement on Act 89 and this particular feature: Counties were permitted to adopt an ordinance adding a $5 surcharge to the annual vehicle registration fee to assist them in their own road and bridge needs. 

Act 89 gave counties the ability to be proactive about addressing their local bridge issues.

At the state level where we own 25,400 bridges, Act 89 has allowed PennDOT to dramatically lower the number of structurally deficient bridges to 14 percent of our total, or 3,486 at the end of March.

In addition, PennDOT used the federal funds from the “shovel ready” stimulus program to help drive the bridge numbers down and tackle other backlogged projects.

But as we drove down our structurally deficient bridge number with additional revenue and emphasis on the problem, little progress was made on the 6,500 non-state owned bridges since Act 89 passed 

As Secretary, I have the authority to designate a small portion of transportation funds to meet critical needs, and in the face of the ongoing local bridge issues, I have made available additional funds to counties who enact the $5 fee. This is a proactive approach to addressing an issue that impacts all segments of communities across the state.

My doing so does not mean some other already funded project is losing funding.

This funding partnership with the counties, no matter how big or small, can make a difference by bringing up to $2 million of additional funds per county to assist them and their local community in keeping their local bridges safe. The funding is available over a period of years as they raise their funds and implement their plan.    Another reason for my doing this is supported by data in our Transportation Performance Report, which shows the only measure that is not improving statewide is local bridges.

Their conditions are deteriorating, and too much is at stake in terms of local mobility to not try a different approach.

The one I have chosen doubles the impact of our investment and doubles the impact of local investment. 

So far, 14 counties with bipartisan support have adopted the $5 fee.

Those 14 counties have nearly 700 structurally deficient local bridges and the percentage of SD bridges in each ranges from 15 to 44 percent.

Lycoming County has 31 SD bridges or nearly 27 percent of its total of 116 local bridges. 

Some critics contend we are imposing “added taxes” and they argue that is a terrible burden to put on people.

We think this is an investment in their communities, and PennDOT is their partner in keeping their local bridges open and in good condition.

Ignoring the bridge problem is not an option.

As I said, untended maintenance leads to posted and closed bridges and that means long detours and disruption. 

Richards is Pennsylvania’s Transportation Secretary and is a former county commissioner.