York County bridge funding might soon collapse

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York County’s plan to tackle structurally deficient bridges is expected to become economically unviable by 2025.

More than 14% of state- and local-owned bridges in the county are structurally deficient, slightly better than the statewide average, according to state Department of Transportation data. But funding is running out to keep the efforts going.

"There is funding, but it's never enough," said Heather Bitner, a senior planner with the York County Planning Commission. "We just have a lot of bridges in our area," she said, adding it might not be realistic for the county to ever see zero deficient bridges.

More:York County's year-old vehicle registration fee raises $1.13M for bridge repairs

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The county aims to start repair on one bridge and two adjacent box beam bridges each year, under the county planning commission's 2010 bridge plan, which was updated in 2014.

Ted Wallace Road bridge in Chanceford Township, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

However, the commission is expecting a deficit that will prevent it from meeting those goals by 2025, Bitner said. The commission will be releasing an updated plan in the next couple of months.

County-owned bridges are funded through liquid fuel taxes as well as a $5 vehicle registration fee that was first imposed in 2016 and has brought in $4.3 million since. Municipalities rely on the fuel tax alone.

York ranks 30th in the state, with 14.2% of its 874 state- and local-owned bridges ranked as deficient. 

To break it down further, 53 of the 114 county- and municipality-owned bridges in York County are deemed structurally deficient. Only 8% of state bridges are deficient throughout the county.

While structurally deficient bridges aren't all considered unsafe, they are in need of attention. Pennsylvania refers to such bridges as "poor."

To be categorized as structurally deficient, at least one of the main structural components — the deck, substructure, superstructure or culvert — has to be rated in poor or worse condition. 

The state's advantage comes in the form of funding. It receives just less than 20% of its bridge budget from federal funding and generally has more resources for bridge repairs, although the federal funds are limited and often used for higher-volume roadways, according to PennDOT.

Throughout Pennsylvania, 3,770 bridges — or 16.5% of those surveyed — are rated "poor," says the American Road Transportation Builders Association's 2019 Bridge Report, which was released this past week. 

"It’s critical that we preserve, repair and replace at a greater rate each year to continue our trend of having fewer bridges in poor condition," said PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell, echoing that having no deficient bridges is an unrealistic goal.

By sheer numbers, the report puts Pennsylvania only behind Iowa. Pennsylvania ranks fifth-worst by percentage of deficient bridges, according to the ARTBA survey. 

But the report doesn't paint the whole picture. In fact, it misses out on more than 10,000 bridges in the Keystone State, according PennDOT data.

That's because the report only looked at bridges more than 20 feet in length. PennDOT inspects any bridge that's at least 8 feet long.

All told, the state has more than 33,000 state- and local-owned bridges, more than 4,800 of which are structurally deficient, according to the data. Including the smaller bridges, the state's percentage of deficient bridges drops from 16.5% to 14.5%.

Decaying bridges and insufficient funds to repair them is a nationwide issue. Bridges have a lifespan of 50-75 years on average, and most were erected post-World War II, leaving plenty knocking on death's door if they don't see repairs.

Since 2015, the state has reduced the number of structurally deficient bridges by 1,199, according to the ARTBA report.

Late last year, the state also completed a bridge in York County, marking the final bridge of its 558-structure list to be repaired under the state's Rapid Bridge Replacement Program, a public-private partnership with PennDOT and Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.