Penndot Offering Private Sector A Partnership To Fix Bridges

The Birmingham Bridge over the Monongahela River is a large span slated for major rehabilitation in the next few years. PennDOT plans to work on smaller bridges first, beginning in 2015. | Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

The Birmingham Bridge over the Monongahela River is a large span slated for major rehabilitation in the next few years. PennDOT plans to work on smaller bridges first, beginning in 2015. | Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

By Jon Schmitz | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation hopes to team with private industry to take a giant bite out of the state’s inventory of deficient bridges.

At least 500 decaying bridges would be replaced starting in 2015 under a partnership in which a private entity would be selected to design, build and maintain the bridges, in exchange for payments from PennDOT that would be tied to performance.

The state owns about 4,200 bridges that are designated as structurally deficient. While considered safe, the bridges have at least one component that is deteriorating, placing them at risk for weight restrictions or, ultimately, closure. The average age of Pennsylvania’s bridges is about 50 years.

About 18 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient, while the national average is just over 7 percent. Pennsylvania leads the U.S. in deficient bridges, a dubious distinction it is likely to shed after the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project moves forward.

With a 2012 public-private partnership law in place, PennDOT initially had hoped to bundle 300 bridges into the program. Enactment of new transportation funding legislation in November enabled the department to expand the program.

Nearly 60 smaller bridges in Allegheny County are on the list for possible replacement, along with 23 in Westmoreland, 13 in Butler, 11 in Armstrong and five in Indiana County.

Among the busier bridges ticketed for replacement are structures on Allegheny River Boulevard in Pittsburgh and Penn Hills; Ardmore Boulevard in Forest Hills; Logans Ferry Road in Plum; Island Avenue in Stowe; and Freeport Road in Harmar and East Deer. Most are less than 60 feet long.

PennDOT hopes to capitalize on cost savings because most of the new bridges will have similar designs and construction standards. In the past, the department typically would pay for design and construction of bridges one at a time.

The public-private partnership “gives us the ability to accelerate the delivery of 550 to 650 bridge replacements that otherwise wouldn’t happen for 15 to 20 years if we were to use a traditional contracting model,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.

The project has generated a lot of buzz in the construction industry. A presentation on the program in November drew representatives of nearly 150 companies, including contractors, engineers and financial organizations.

“A great portion of my members are very interested in this program,” said Eric Madden, executive vice president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania, comprising more than 125 companies.

Companies are racing to put together teams to submit proposals, he said.

In addition to taking care of lots of bridges with critical needs in a short time, the program will provide stability to the engineering and construction industry “to keep people employed and to hire people,” he said.

PennDOT has invited companies to submit their qualifications to oversee the program by Jan. 31.

After the submissions are reviewed, PennDOT will invite qualified teams to submit proposals. It will determine the best proposal based on cost and technical approach, and hopes to have construction underway on 50 to 100 of the bridges in 2015.

“With a project of this scale, we anticipate that proposers will establish their own teams including multiple contractors, but the exact structure is up to them,” Ms. Waters-Trasatt said.

The winning bidder also will maintain the new bridges over a long term, possibly up to 40 years.

Traditionally, a contractor’s responsibility ends with completion of a bridge, Ms. Waters-Trasatt said. “With the requirement to take maintenance costs into consideration, the project team may decide it is more cost effective to build the bridges in a way that reduces the amount of anticipated maintenance in the future. The department anticipates realizing value from this by reducing not just the construction cost but the whole life cycle cost of the bridge.”

The state has made great progress in recent years, reducing its backlog of more than 6,000 structurally deficient bridges to the current total of 4,211 as of Dec. 31.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868.