York County lays out case for $5 bridge fee
The one-lane bridge on Seitzville Road over the South Branch of the Codorus Creek a few miles south of Seven Valleys was built at a time when most people were getting around on horse and carriage.
The concrete arch bridge has been in use since it was built more than 100 years ago and handles far heavier modes of transportation and likely more traffic than first intended.
“This was never designed for today's traffic, and it's a testament to how well it was designed that it's still in use,” said Steve Malesker, an engineer with C.S. Davidson, the firm that provides engineering services to York County.
In 2011, the bridge — built in 1910 — that connects Springfield and Codorus townships was damaged during Tropical Storm Lee, causing it to be closed for months.
Despite its age, the old bridge is listed in satisfactory condition, but the same can't be said for the majority of the 95 county-owned bridges, which have an average age of 65. A combined 72 percent are in either fair or poor condition or serious, critical or failed condition, county officials have said.
It's with that in mind, and coupled with increasing costs to fix or replace the aging bridges, that county commissioners are poised to implement a $5 fee, tacked onto vehicle registrations in the county, that would be earmarked for bridgework. It's expected to create about $2 million in additional revenue.
Commissioners will vote on the fee at their June 15 meeting.
Financial woes: Back in 2014, county planning commission and engineering officials first rang the alarm that the county was facing financial uncertainty for bridgework in the coming years.
They projected the county's bridge maintenance program would hit a negative fund balance in 2020 and recommended commissioners impose the $5 fee, chalked up as a user fee, or face having to drastically raise taxes.
The county currently relies solely on state funding for bridgework and is to receive $1.55 million this year, said Will Clark, the planning commission's chief of transportation planning.
About $600,000 of that is going toward yearly bridge maintenance, and about $250,000 is to be spent on maintaining one bridge, the Kunkles Mill Road bridge that spans Warrington and Dover townships, he said, noting that's more than half the total state allocation just for maintenance, leaving little for repairing or replacing bridges. It costs $1.8 million on average to replace a bridge.
"You can now see why we need the $5 fee," Clark said.
The fee: Counties were given permission to impose the fee when the state Legislature passed the 2013 transportation spending plan, known as Act 89.
Since the fee would be added to registrations, PennDOT would be in charge of collecting it but wouldn't take a portion of what's collected. Instead, it would send all the money back to York County.
In 2015, there were 461,547 registered vehicles in the county, according to PennDOT.
That would mean the county could potentially see $2.3 million from the $5 fee. However, under Act 89, motorists have the option of renewing their registration every two years at a higher rate than a single-year registration.
"About 10 percent of the population is what we anticipate doing the two-year registration," Clark said, adding officials project the true amount generated from the fee to be closer to the $2 million mark.
Also as part of the Act 89, the cost to register a vehicle will increase. The cost to register a car will go to $38 next year, not including the $5 fee. Starting in 2019, fees will increase every two years, and the increase will be tied to inflation.
When it would happen: If commissioners approve imposing the $5 fee, it would be in place on Oct. 1, the next available start date, Clark said.
Since the possible start date is not the start of the calendar year, it gives the appearance that some drivers whose registration is due before October are essentially getting a free pass from having to pay $5 in the first year, Clark acknowledged. But in a 12-month period starting in October, everyone will be hit with the fee.
"Every 12 months, everyone will pay it once," Clark said.
County officials opted to set October as the potential start date so some money will start flowing to the county starting in December, allowing officials to start planning for next year's bridgework, he said.
The county would then see funding coming in every six months — in June and December of each year.
Elsewhere: Cumberland County was one of the first counties in the state to start collecting the $5 fee when it implemented it in 2015.
At the time, officials projected to rake in about $1.1 million a year, and the county has been hitting that mark, said Vince DiFilippo, chairman of the county board of commissioners.
“We've already put the funds to use,” he said. “We're glad we did it."
Cumberland County owns 28 bridges, nine of which it shares with York County, and their average age is about 75 years old. Like in York County, bridges there are in need of repair or replacement.
The county has since embarked on an ambitious plan to replace or repair two bridges this year and three to five more in 2017, DiFilippo said.
With an influx of money rolling into Cumberland County for its bridge program, and York County poised to reap the same benefits, it's feasible that, years from now, the counties could have more than enough money to fund bridgework.
“I think you'd get to a point when all your bridges are fixed or replaced,” DiFilippo said.
Under Act 89, counties can give funding to municipalities for their roadwork. DiFilippo said Cumberland County hasn't explored that option yet and has its eyes set squarely on fixing its bridges. York County officials said they also need to focus on its bridges before considering that option.
Bridges: Almost half, 44 to be exact, of the county-owned bridges are one lane, and 27 of the 95 bridges have posted weight restrictions.
The Log Road bridge over the East Branch of the Codorus Creek that borders York and Springfield townships is a single lane and is limited to vehicles that weigh 23 tons or less.
The bridge, which was built in 1954, has undergone repairs in the past. A few years back, the underside of the bridge was patched, Malesker said.
With rather deep water below, workers had to get creative in how they went about taking on the project. A raft had to be built and the workers had to lay on their backs to patch the bottom.
“They were basically working on their backs doing the patching,” he said.
Ideally, the Log Road and Seitzville Road bridges would be replaced because of their ages and being single lane.
One problem bridges like the Log Road bridge face is water that seeps through the concrete deck, causing steel to rust and materials to leach out the underside of the superstructure. That automatically lowers a bridge's rating, Malesker said.
Feedback: Since unveiling the proposal to impose the fee a few weeks ago, York County commissioners have received some feedback from residents.
Doug Hoke, the vice president commissioner, said he received emails or phone calls from about six people and he talked them through the proposal.
"I think most of the people understand why we are thinking about doing it," he said. "I think a lot of them were reassured."
Hoke said he hasn't decided if he'll vote for the fee.
Though DiFilippo, who took office in Cumberland County at the start of this year, acknowledged no one likes having to pay added money to the government, he hasn't received negative feedback from residents.
“At least since I've been in office, I haven't heard any complaints,” he said.
Susan Byrnes, the York County president commissioner, said she also heard from about six residents, one of whom is in favor of the fee.
Commissioner Chris Reilly said he heard from about five residents and also explained the proposal to them.
"I expected more of a response," he said.
One concern residents raised was where the money would be spent. Officials said fee-generated revenue would only be used for bridgework. State law dictates the money can only be used for transportation purposes, and that also includes purchasing equipment and vehicles for roadwork or bridgework.
"It's not going to be used in the general fund," Hoke said. "If we don't do it, we will be woefully underfunded."