State Lawmakers Seek Interim Funding as PennDOT Releases New Fern Hollow Design

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Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee met in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to discuss funding for bridges and infrastructure in the wake of the January 28 Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.

“It was all preventable,” State Rep. Dan Frankel said of the collapse, adding that calls for additional infrastructure funding have long fallen on deaf ears in Harrisburg and Washington. Instead, representatives have been told for years to cut funding and save money, he said.

“Let this discussion show what happens when you try to save money by neglecting infrastructure,” Frankel said.

Pennsylvania has more than 25,400 state-owned bridges and 6,600 locally-owned bridges over 20 feet long, according to PennDOT officials. In Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, which together form PennDOT District 11, there are 1,804 bridges, 146 of which are in “poor” condition.

The theme of the hearing was that Pennsylvania needs to find more money to fund infrastructure, whether in “rural, suburban or urban communities,” said state representative Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia. But the exact source of this money remains an open question.

A number of representatives referenced President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, a more than $2 trillion bill that includes funding for initiatives ranging from child care and investments in the broadband to the modernization of infrastructures to better withstand climate change. However, talks on this bill have stalled and it may only move forward in stages, if at all.

Luzerne County State Rep. Mike Carroll said Pennsylvania’s infrastructure repair must include the federal government, but Harrisburg is not without resources. He cited the state’s Rainy Day Fund, federal coronavirus aid money and annual revenue that exceeded budget expectations.

“It would be malpractice on our part not to do something about the infrastructure of this state beyond the resources of the Motor License Fund,” Carroll said, referring to the state’s current funding stream for the infrastructure.

Carroll said it would be difficult to find hundreds of millions of dollars in the general fund, especially as the Commonwealth faces another major funding problem. In July, a $450 million annual payment from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to PennDOT, which helps fund public transit, is end. So far, lawmakers have not found a way to replace income.

Despite the absence of any Republican lawmakers on Tuesday — it was a Democratic event — representatives expressed cautious optimism that their colleagues would work together on the infrastructure funding effort. They noted that all Pennsylvanians depend on bridges, as does the economic performance of the Commonwealth.

Mayor Ed Gainey said the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse provided a new opportunity for dialogue. Finding and funding a long-term infrastructure plan for the state should be lawmakers’ top priority, he said, and have “bipartisan, bicameral support.”

Without it, “the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will always have an infrastructure problem,” he said, adding that jobs, schools and civic life would all suffer. .

“Now do me a favor,” he concluded. “Help me get this funding so we never have to worry about it again.”

Tuesday’s hearing was held at the Frick Pittsburgh, a cluster of museums and historic buildings located just half a mile from the old Fern Hollow Bridge. During the event, PennDOT District 11 Director Cheryl Moon-Sirianni discussed plans to replace the bridge.

The new bridge will be an I-beam construction that looks similar to what some community stakeholders described at WESA as “a road viaduct”. Drafts can be viewed at the project website, launched today. While PennDOT is working with various city departments on the project, there will be no community meetings. Instead, the new website includes a public comment area.

Moon-Sirianni said many factors influenced the choice of the new design, including cost, material availability and delivery time.

“Delaying the bridge for a few months wouldn’t help some of the designs suggested by community members,” she said. Based on PennDOT’s discussions with manufacturers, Moon-Sirianni said, other designs and elements would have added 18 months to the bridge replacement schedule and a cost of $10 million.

The new bridge will still carry four lanes of traffic, with a five-foot sidewalk along the north lanes and an approximately 10.5-foot protected pedestrian and bicycle lane on the south side.

Currently, work on “the foundation, substructure, superstructure, utility relocation, environmental and aesthetic components of the bridge” is underway, Moon-Sirianni said.

The $25.3 million project is expected to begin construction in late April, she said.

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