States Bridge the Gap in Infrastructure Needs
by Sean Slone
Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner believes his state has dodged a series of bullets in the past few years.
Structural concerns on major bridge crossings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania have resulted in bridge closings and weight limitations. But they could have produced much more catastrophic consequences. While there was no loss of life as a result of these structural deficiencies, Wagner—who was a safety engineer before joining state government—worries what the future will bring.
“I am very concerned that we’re keeping up with a maintenance schedule that is adequate and keeping these structures safe,” Wagner said. “State government especially has a critical need to invest in what we consider to be bridges in disrepair to make sure this network remains safe and, at the same time, is efficient and effective.”
According to the Federal Highway Administration, Pennsylvania has nearly 6,000 bridges rated as structurally deficient—the most of any state. Transportation for America reported in October that more than 18,000 of the nation’s busiest bridges, clustered around metro areas, are rated as structurally deficient. These cities are some of the nation’s most vital economic engines. Pittsburgh has the highest percentage of deficient bridges—30.4 percent—for a metro area with a population of 2 million or more.
Last summer, a transportation funding advisory commission assembled by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett called for a series of strategies to help fill an estimated $3.5 billion gap in funding for infrastructure. They included increasing registration and license fees and raising a component of the state gasoline tax to produce $2.5 billion more for highways, bridges and mass transit.
When the governor and state lawmakers appeared at odds last fall over when to take up the commission’s recommendations, one of the most strident voices favoring their adoption came from an unlikely source: Wagner, the state’s fiscal watchdog, who normally finds himself advocating for less state spending.
“But I also realize the predicament that our economy is in and America has a golden opportunity here; Pennsylvania has a golden opportunity,” he said. “(Infrastructure investment) is the easiest and quickest and most sensible way for our commonwealth and the country to put people back to work in a recession.”
Oklahoma Sets an Ambitious Goal
Just below Pennsylvania in terms of states with the highest percentage of deficient bridges is Oklahoma. Oklahoma City and Tulsa also rank at the top in the Transportation for America report for percentage of deficient bridges in cities their size.
When structural deficiencies forced lower truck weight limits on bridges around the state, that has a direct economic impact on the state’s agricultural and commercial sectors, Oklahoma officials say. Trucks are sometimes forced to go out of their way, adding to delivery times and the cost of doing business in the state.
But Gov. Mary Fallin has set a goal for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation that she hopes will take the state from one of the worst in the nation in terms of bridge conditions to one of the best: repairing all of the deficient bridges on the state highway system by 2019.
“At the end of (2010), we had 706 structurally deficient bridges on our list and we had funding in place at the time for all but 293 of them,” said the department’s Chief Engineer Gary Evans. “The governor asked us when we rebalanced our eight-year work plan … to put as many structurally deficient bridges into (it) that we could.”
Evans and his team were able to add another 126 of the 293 remaining bridges to the plan using already anticipated revenues. To help fund the remaining 167 bridges, the governor has asked the Oklahoma legislature to increase the amount of state revenue set aside for road and bridge repairs by $15 million a year and raise the road and bridge maintenance cap for the eight-year period to $550 million. The state currently sets aside $41.7 million a year for road and bridge repairs and has a funding cap of $435 million for the eight-year plan. Fallin has said expected growth in state revenue from anticipated increases in economic activity will account for the additional revenues and that increases in taxes, tolls or fees won’t be necessary.
Evans believes convincing the legislature to make the increased investment should be an easy sell because state officials have done their homework—setting a goal and making plans to keep the public in the loop about progress toward meeting the goal.
“We have asked for money for specific purposes—for the purpose of (addressing) our structurally deficient bridges,” Evans said. “We will be very open and transparent. It’s easy to keep track of what we’ve been able to accomplish. We haven’t hired new employees. … We’ve taken the money and put it directly into hard assets and that transparency and accountability has worked well. I think it is something that the public can get behind.”
But the political winds can’t always be predicted. Otherwise, the nation’s infrastructure would probably not be in the condition it’s in, observers say. Still, state lawmakers who may be concerned about the potential political consequences of voting for the tax and fee increases that may be necessary to fund infrastructure improvements are looking at it in the wrong way, Pennsylvania’s Wagner said.
“I think a worst case scenario is a legislator didn’t act in the interest of public safety and enhancing the economy of Pennsylvania,” he said “Because there is no doubt (state) government has to take the lead when it comes to infrastructure investments and by taking the lead, you send a very positive message to the private sector that government is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Wagner said continuing federal inaction on new legislation to authorize surface transportation programs is another reason state government shouldn’t wait to move forward to meet their infrastructure needs. The previous legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, officially expired in 2009. Congress has been stymied to come up with a permanent successor ever since.
“We in state government don’t have a lot of impact on what will happen going forward at the federal level,” he said. “We do control our own destiny here in Pennsylvania and the more we do for ourselves, the better positioned we are going forward if something positive happens at the federal level because it will enhance our ability to get more federal funds for these projects.”
Oklahoma’s Evans agrees.
“In these times when you see the federal government … up in the air as to what’s going to go on in the future, I think it’s more and more important for (state officials) to make sure that they’re playing their role in funding the transportation systems for the futures of their states,” he said.