National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Pilot nets counties dozens of ‘free’ bridges

By Charles Taylor

Photo courtesy of Washington County, Pa. Planning Commission

Before and after photos of the Chartiers Creek Bridge #19 in Washington County, Pa. show one result of a three-county, bridge-bundling pilot that’s tackling 38 structurally deficient bridges.

Three Pennsylvania counties are serving as guinea pigs in a “bridge bundling” pilot that could be expanded statewide. And for stepping up, they’re getting the work done for free.

As a result, Blair, Luzerne and Washington counties will have 38 bridges repaired, refurbished or replaced this year and next. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is coordinating the effort and paying the full freight, and is looking to expand the concept to its state-owned bridges and other county bridges.

Typically, the costs of bridge work are shared in Pennsylvania, with the state paying 80 percent and the county 20 percent. Scott Christie, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for highway administration, said offering to pick up the tab was a way to “incentivize” counties to participate in the pilot.

“What we said was anybody who opts into this on a pilot basis, we will waive that 20 percent,” he said, “because our belief is we will save more than 20 percent of the cost, so in reality by us waiving their 20 percent cost, we actually pay less money.”

The way that works, he said, is by bundling similar projects. “We have a lot of structurally deficient bridges,” Christie explained; “let’s take a bunch of them that have realistically the same characteristics or can be described in the same way — have the same span length, the same opening, things like that.”

Because of those similarities standard designs and construction methods can be used rather than counties taking a piecemeal approach and engineering each project individually. PennDOT is focusing on bridge replacements in Luzerne, superstructure rehabilitation in Washington and redecking projects in Blair at a total cost of about $11 million.

“Basically we’re cutting back the big design effort, and then on the construction side, because it’s the same design, it ends up being a precast cookie cutter-type operation,” he said. “You can use the same formwork to make all the beams, and a lot of the steel and reinforcing steel in the deck is all the same.”

Eighteen structures were selected for rehabilitation in Washington County, according to Lisa Cessna, executive director, Washington County Planning Commission. The supporting abutments will be left in place and the superstructures refurbished. She said if the county did the work, it could cost approximately $500,000 to rehabilitate a bridge or $800,000 to replace one.

“That saves us a tremendous amount of money and helps us focus our attention and our limited dollars in other locations,” she said. “So it’s a big deal to us, not only to have those [bridges improved] but also a big deal to us hopefully in lessons learned — that there’s a different way of going about doing business.”

In Luzerne County, seven bridges are scheduled to be replaced on a “fast track” and three, deemed obsolete or redundant, to be demolished. Design work is being done this year with construction to be completed in 2014 — years earlier than the county could normally accomplish.

Bridge replacements normally take from four to six years on average due to “stringent environmental, utility, right-of-way and cultural resource regulations,” according to a report to the County Council from Luzerne’s Road and Bridge Department.

“The county could choose not to participate in the program,” the Dec. 11, 2012 report stated. “However, replacing the structures using the normal federal aid process would require at least 20–30 years and at least $25 million in funding.”

After the pilot is evaluated, PennDOT officials said they’ll look at providing other kinds of incentives for counties to participate in bridge bundling, so this “freshman class” will be the only one to get a free ride. Christie said his agency is looking for other ways to provide cost-saving incentives to counties going forward.

“Let’s say PennDOT knows this year we’re going to do a bunch of 60-foot-long bridges, eight of them,” he cited as an example. “We’ll then we go to the locals in that area and say do you have any that are 60 feet that you want to opt in, and then we can incentivize what your share would be. So we’re trying to marry it up to our own program.”

In Washington County, two bridge refurbishments have been completed, Cessna said. “I  hope the pilot project across all three counties… helps develop some new guidelines and specifications that deal with local structures because a lot of these are in remote locations; they’re important to the people who live there.”