The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation can't print money to fix thousands of structurally deficient bridges across the state.
But it can print signs reducing the weight load allowed to travel across those bridges.
It was doing just that Thursday at its sign shop in Harrisburg, just after Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch announced about 1,000 of the most at-risk bridges in the state would be weight-restricted.
Schoch said the move will put the brakes on bridge wear and tear.
“They are not unsafe, not unsafe,” Schoch repeated himself to emphasize the point. “We are restricting the weight so we can slow down the deterioration.”
Schoch said Pennsylvania is tops in the nation in terms of structurally deficient bridges with 4,479. He added that 11,000 of the state's 25,000 are in need of TLC that they're currently not getting because of budgetary restraints.
By weight-restricting 1,000 bridges, most tractor-trailers and fire engines and some school buses will have to find alternate routes. He said everyone will feel the impact in some way.
“The cost is gonna be all the products shipped by any vehicle could go up, school children moved by bus that are gonna have to go on a longer route,” Schoch said. “That's gonna be a cost in terms of time and money and that cost is gonna get passed on.”
Thursday's announcement was the result of failed legislation this summer. State lawmakers didn't pass any of the transportation funding plans that would've provided an additional $2 billion for roads, bridges and mass transit. Those plans called for higher gasoline taxes and license and registration fees.
But there are skeptics.
“Let's not shut down bridges to try to extract more out of taxpayers than we already do,” said Matt Brouillette of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.
Brouillette, and many House Republicans, say Pennsylvania is already one of the higher spenders on transportation per capita and per mile. They think PennDOT needs to reprioritize how it spends its $7.2 billion a year.
“We shouldn't be spending money on new road construction when there are bridges falling down,” Brouillette said. “Our tax dollars shouldn't be going to beautification projects when we have bridges falling down. We ought not be taking money off of our roads to subsidize mass transit. We oughta be making those riders pay more for their ride.”
Schoch counters that after required payments to municipalities, state police and mass transit, there's only $3.8 billion for roads and bridges.
He admits that the average driver of a car will not be detoured, and therefore may not be willing to pay more at the pump so that heavier vehicles can more easily traverse the state.
“What's the message to the public and the legislators? If we don't deal with it I'll be back again next spring with another list,” he said. “Three hundred bridges age onto the system every year. This is not a problem that's gonna go away without resources.”
Schoch said it will be up to state and local police to enforce the weight restrictions once they're posted, a process that will take about five months to complete.
Of the thousand weight-restricted bridges, nearly 110 are in central Pennsylvania.
On the Web:
State-owned bridges with new weight restrictions:
Locally-owned bridges with new weight restrictions: