Meadville Tribune

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September 22, 2013

State politicians see bad bridges as 'ticking time bomb'

HARRISBURG — State Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland County, was one of the most outspoken proponents of liquor privatization in the state House in the early summer.

On the floor of the General Assembly, Masser complained that, as a restaurateur, about the only product served in his restaurants that aren’t delivered to the business are the alcohol products sold by the state store system.

But Friday morning, Masser said, while he is “cautiously optimistic” that the Legislature will accomplish one of the big policy goals established by Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this year, liquor privatization may be the least important.

“I’d love to see (liquor privatization),” Masser said. “But it’s not going to get anyone killed if we don’t do it.”

The same cannot necessarily be said about transportation funding in a state with 4,000 structurally deficient bridges, Masser said.

It was a sentiment echoed word-for-word by state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” Yaw said.

Pennsylvania has the third largest number of bridges in the U.S., but the state has most bridges identified as being structurally deficient. In addition, the Department of Transportation announced this summer that weight limits are being placed on 1,000 bridges that need repairs but won’t get them unless the state Legislature passes a transportation funding plan.

An investigation by The Associated Press found there are 1,350 bridges known to be “fracture critical,” in addition to the bridges identified as structurally deficient. A bridge is deemed “fracture critical” when it does not have redundant protections and is at risk of collapse if a single, vital component fails. A bridge is “structurally deficient” when it is in need of rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component of the span has advanced deterioration or other problems that lead inspectors to deem its condition “poor” or worse.

There are 577 bridges in Pennsylvania that are both fracture critical and structurally deficient, the AP found.

Efforts to pour money into road and bridge repairs derailed when the issue became informally linked with liquor privatization. The Senate passed a transportation funding plan and the House passed a bill that would dismantle the state’s liquor monopoly. But at the 11th hour before the end of the budget year, both plans died in a stalemate as lawmakers were crippled waiting for the other chamber to act.

As Masser’s remarks suggest, there may be momentum building to act on transportation funding in the House even without a liquor plan in the Senate.

Finding a solution will still by tricky because transportation funding could be hamstrung by a Catch-22: Democrats want the plan to be more expensive, but the bigger the price tag, the less likely it is that Republicans will buy into it.

“How we find that sweet spot remains to be seen,” said state Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer County.

Stevenson said there is such division within the House Republican caucus over transportation funding that any successful bill is going to need Democratic support.

“How do we find a bipartisan solution?” Stevenson asked.

There is consensus about the need for action and intense pressure for Corbett to notch a victory before 2014 — when he stands for re-election.

Even some Democrats believe that the time may be right for a transportation funding plan.

“I’d give that one a good, strong chance,” said Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County. “I don’t hold high hopes for liquor privatization or the pension reforms.”

But, with Corbett’s popularity at historic lows, it’s unclear whether Republican lawmakers will seek to put themselves at risk in order to achieve Corbett’s goals.

“I think we’re looking at more stagnation,” said Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie County.

Stevenson said that if Corbett’s perceived vulnerabilities are going to be a factor, it will likely be because Democrats are more willing to draw a firm line in the sand to avoid giving Corbett any opportunity to claim a victory.

Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at jfinnerty@cnhi.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.

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