HARRISBURG - Another 1,000 bridges in Pennsylvania will be slapped with additional weight restrictions as a consequence of declining funding for repairs and the Legislature's failure to approve higher gas taxes and motorist fees since the 1990s, the state's top transportation official warned senators Wednesday.
The move being considered by Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch could increase the number of weight-restricted bridges about 50 percent in the coming months, with the first new restrictions appearing as early as August.
Schoch told the Senate Transportation Committee that the policy is particularly necessary given the rising costs to pay for the state police and stronger fuel efficiency standards that are eating away at revenue from motor vehicle fuel taxes.
The restrictions will slow down the deterioration of the bridges, and allow the Department of Transportation to spend money on other needs, Schoch said.
"There is no choice at this point but to do so," Schoch said.
The department is planning to spend about $4.3 billion this year to maintain and build state and local roads and bridges, plus another $1.4 billion for mass transit systems. The figures include federal and state taxpayer money.
Schoch's testimony follows a battle in the Legislature over the approval of billions of dollars in higher fuel taxes and motorist fees. In February, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a plan that would eventually increase spending on roads, bridges and mass transit systems by $1.8 billion a year. In early June, the Senate voted 45-5 to approve a bill that would eventually increase transportation spending by $2.5 billion a year.
However, neither Corbett nor leaders of the House Republican majority endorsed the Senate bill, and House GOP leaders were unable to come up with a plan that could pass the chamber before lawmakers left Harrisburg for the rest of the summer.
Schoch predicted the new weight restrictions will potentially mean longer routes and commutes for haulers, school buses and emergency vehicles. He also said he worried about having to face the families of victims should a bridge collapse.
"It's time to act," Schoch told senators. "If we don't, the consequences keep getting worse."
For now, more than 2,200 state- and locally owned bridges out of about 31,000 in the state are already weight-restricted, according to state figures.
Schoch said Pennsylvania is the most resistant state in the nation in weight restricting its bridges. Under the national average, it would have 6,000 weight-restricted bridges already, he said.
Pennsylvania ranks 11th in spending per highway mile, but Schoch said that is not surprising, since the state has highways that are among the oldest in the nation, a large number of bridges, costs to plow snow and among the worst freeze-thaw cycles.