EDITORIAL: Long road ahead on Pa.'s infrastructure

York Dispatch Editorial Board

With the reopening of the bridge on Spangler Mills Road in Fairview Township last month bringing a three-year bridge-replacement program to a close in York County, it would be easy to assume that the state’s transportation infrastructure is in top shape.

Not so fast.

While there has been laudable progress on the condition of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges since the infusion of funding provided by Act 89 five years ago, there are still many miles to travel before the state can claim victory on the road to a high-grade highway system.

That’s according to the Pennsylvania State Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which recently released its annual Report Card on the state’s infrastructure. Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges both received lowly grades of D+.

“While there have been many improvements over the past four years, Pennsylvania’s bridge asset managers still face several challenges,” the ASCE determined, “and Pennsylvania has more than double the national average of bridges rated in ‘poor’ condition.”

The assessment on state roads wasn’t much sunnier: “Although (Act 89) funds have contributed to the advancement of reconstruction, rehabilitation, new roadway, and intersection improvement projects, there is a significant roadway backlog that still requires attention, as seen by 43 percent of PennDOT-owned roadways having a fair or poor pavement surface.”

Congested and poorly maintained roads aren’t just an inconvenience — although they are certainly that — they are a huge financial burden, according to the engineers.

Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the opening of its 500th bridge, as part of the PA Rapid Bridge Replacement project, on Andersontown Road, spanning Yellow Breeches Creek into both Fairview and Lower Allen Townships, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The council estimates that deficient roads cost Pennsylvania motorists some $500 million in annual operating and maintenance costs. And persistent traffic congestion — a way of life for denizens of Route 30, Interstate 83 and too many other regional roadways — accounts for some an estimated $3.7 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel.

And then there are safety concerns.

As for bridges, despite the financial boost of Act 89 dollars and creative efforts like the rapid bridge replacement program, more than 18 percent of the state’s overpasses are rated as in poor condition. In fact, at some 4,170, the state has the second-most poorly rated bridges in the nation.

It is not as if state leaders have ignored these problems. Act 89 was an aggressive and forward-looking funding plan, and it has enabled the state to replace hundreds of bridges and improve thousands of miles of pavement.

But it’s a numbers game. Pennsylvania is home to more than 22,750 bridges and some 120,000 miles of roadway. And with 8.8 million drivers motoring nearly 100 billion miles a year, wear and tear is more than considerable.

And remember, the state’s highway infrastructure was among the worst in the nation before Act 89 was passed, so there has been much ground to make up.

So while PennDOT and its partners deserve praise for their work so far, much remains on the to-do list.

They’ll need help from state officials in finding new, sustainable sources of funding (preferably other than annual toll hikes, a la the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission).

They’ll need creativity in extending the life of rebuilt and existing roads and bridges via better building materials and traffic-calming devices.

And they’ll need patience — and lots of it — from Pennsylvania’s multitude of motorists, who endure routine closures and detours, outsized truck traffic, chronic congestion, continuous construction (even rapid bridge replacement projects take weeks) and subpar driving conditions.

State officials, engineers, contractors and construction workers deserve an A for effort (with the possible exception of the Mount Rose/I-83 project). Now they must redouble their efforts so that state drivers are not forced to navigate D+ roadways.