Addressing Centre County’s failing bridges to require joint effort

According to the Federal Highway Association, 14 percent of Centre County’s bridges are considered structurally deficient, including the bridge that crosses Slab Cabin Run on East Branch Road in State College.
According to the Federal Highway Association, 14 percent of Centre County’s bridges are considered structurally deficient, including the bridge that crosses Slab Cabin Run on East Branch Road in State College. adrey@centredaily.com

More Centre County bridges are considered “structurally deficient” than the national average, according to the Federal Highway Administration, but county and state government officials are working to correct the problems.

Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation, behind Iowa, with just more than 4,500 bridges classified as structurally deficient, according to the FHA. Centre County has 356 bridges in use and 50, or 14 percent, are classified as structurally deficient. The national average is 9.1 percent.

A bridge is considered structurally deficient if one or more of the elements, such as the deck, super-structure or substructure, are deemed to be in poor condition by a licensed bridge inspector. A structurally deficient bridge can still be used, but is closely monitored by the state.

There are 10 structurally deficient bridges within thecounty that are under construction or will be repaired or replaced this year. One of the bridges crosses Slab Cabin Run on East Branch Road. The bridge, which was built in 1954, spans the run near the Centre Hills Country Club entrance in State College. It is being replaced by Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. this summer.

The estimated $1.8 million project is expected to begin July 17, and be completed in late August, according to Charles Campbell, Hawbaker’s director of special projects. Funding for the project will come from revenue generated by the Act 89 transportation bill, signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2013.

The bill eliminated the 12 cent per gallon state retail fuel tax and increased the tax amount that can be collected on wholesale fuels. The bill is expected to generate up to $2.4 billion over five years for infrastructure projects.

Centre County lies within the 5th Congressional District, which has about 3,800 bridges, 714 of which are structurally deficient. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, who represents the district, said state and federal funding is helping to address the bridge problem for state routes and interstates, but bridges maintained at a local level are the responsibility of municipal planning organizations and county government.

“Our planning organizations have a great challenge in front of them and have been doing a great job at setting priorities,” Thompson said. “I and my staff meet with them frequently to stay informed on the local projects and to determine where I can lend further assistance.”

The MPOs use reserve funds to maintain the bridges, but also look to the county for help. Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said the county is in a strong position to pursue state grant dollars for the projects.

The county has about $1 million set aside for matching state grants, Pipe said, and if the funds are awarded, the county will allocate the money to municipalities for infrastructure improvements. Pipe said the board of commissioners is also exploring other sources of funding.

In January, the commissioners announced that they are considering a $5 increase in vehicle registration. Act 89 had a provision that allows boards of commissioners throughout the state to impose the fee. All of the revenue generated by the increase would stay in Centre County, which Pipe said may be attractive to residents.

“Act 89 was a great piece of legislation, but we’re not guaranteed that the taxes we’re paying through the gas pump are staying here in Centre County,” Pipe said in January. “I think drivers are more likely to support paying the $5 fee if they see it being used in their communities.”

If the fee is imposed, the county expects to raise almost $600,000 for infrastructure projects, Pipe said. The commissioners plan to hold town hall meetings around the county in the coming weeks to hear input from residents about the fee increase.

Over the next few years, Pipe said he thinks many of the bridge problems will be addressed, but he said it is going to take a collective effort between, local, county, state and federal government to make it happen.

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi