A Bridge To Nowhere

My home state of Pennsylvania is a very old state. It is certainly not unique in that regard – there are other ancient states in the United States – but in fact a lot of stuff we use each day here is quite…old.

Pennsylvania has the third-highest number of bridges in the country. For as long as I’ve been alive, the subject of its aging bridges has been at the top of the planning agenda each year when the Commonwealth’s Department of Transportation reviews what structures need immediate attention, reshuffling the priority deck based on traffic flow, the repairs needed, etc. to best determine where repair crews should head next.

And of course…as long as there is money in the budget.

And of course…if one of our major cities is involved, whether or not some or all of the funds should come from the city or state budget…if the money is even available.

This topic will be staying atop PennDOT’s agenda for a long, long, l-o-n-g time…at least as long as some of these bridges have been in existence…bridges people drive across daily. Pennsylvania has as of this writing north of 25,000 state-owned bridges. There are almost 7,000 locally-owned bridges which the PA Department of Transportation also takes inspection responsibility for. Many of the bridges are of modest size, helping drivers get across small streams and rivers, but when they are shut down or closed…traffic Armageddon can be the result.

Several years ago, a plan began where vehicle owners were required to pay an additional charge when their annual Pennsylvania vehicle registrations came due. It was explained at that time the plan was to help fund bridge repairs and reconstruction within the County you resided within. The funds being generated would be for bridges deemed as “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”

It should be noted we’ve been assured by our transportation experts these classifications don’t mean the bridges can’t support traffic. Ok, but…I don’t know about you but the use of “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” works much better for me when we’re talking Jenga or Legos instead of supporting structures for cars or trucks.

The life span of the bridges is generally considered to be 50 years. Five years ago, of the 95 bridges reported to be in existence in our Chester County at that time, 57 of them were over 75 years old…31 over 100 years old.

Chester County has been trying to keep a goal of restoring or replacing at least a couple of bridges per year. Two. Since 1980, there were twelve years where no bridge work was done in the County at all.

I don’t think we’re gonna get caught up, folks.

Recently, one of the smallest bridges in Chester County was deemed unsuitable for traffic and taken out of commission completely…in our neighborhood.

Without getting out my tape measure, I’m thinking the bridge area stretches about 75 feet long, designed for two-way traffic just off an intersection which gets high volume usage. It lies just a short distance from two major highways.

Hurricane Ida, which did take out a handful of the state’s bridges completely, was the reason for our local bridge being taken off-line as well. (Side note – I think some people relax when they hear a Hurricane has been downgraded. That’s for the wind. The moisture and its fury is often a bigger culprit, at least in our region) The Ida damage took place in early September, 2021. The structure has since been judged to need a total replacement. If all goes well, the current estimate is the new bridge will be completed…in March, 2023.

Unless of course, other bridges deemed more critical to traffic flow become unable to be used in the interim. Unless of course, the money isn’t there, no matter whose budget gets tapped into.

You may have heard about a bridge collapse in Western PA in January of this year. Pittsburgh made headlines when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed with a bus and several cars on it. Since then, there have been calls for more information to be provided to the Commonwealth’s residents as to the current condition of each and every bridge in the state. The goal would be to have a database for all to reference. As it turns out, the state was previously displaying inspection notes about bridges on its website, as well as names of the inspectors involved…but when the Pittsburgh media began asking questions about this information post-Fern Hollow, the information was taken down. Hmm.

So we’ve got it all now, the perfect storm of too many bridges that need help, not enough money to address all the work needed, and uncertainty as to whether or not our current inspection system is actually, truly keeping the citizens of the Commonwealth safe.

As for the arrival of that new bridge our area needs to return to normal…we’ll cross that bridge when they get to it.