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Development & Transportation

Study: PA's Rural Bridges Worst in the Country

Pittsburgh is known as “The City of Bridges,” but a recent study by national transportation research group TRIP suggests that there are other areas in the state whose bridges could use a little more attention.

The study, published Thursday, found that the condition of Pennsylvania’s rural bridges was the worst in the country. Pennsylvania’s country roads scored slightly better, at the 20th worst among the 50 states. The fatality statistics were grim—Pennsylvania has the 10th highest death rate on its country roads of any state.

The report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” collected data from all 50 states on any roads and bridges located in a municipality with fewer than 50,000 residents.

A quarter of Pennsylvania’s rural bridges are currently “structurally deficient,” said Carolyn Kelly, Associate Director of Research and Communication for TRIP. This is similar to Pennsylvania’s overall bridge deterioration measurement of 23 percent, which puts Pennsylvania at the top of the list in both overall and rural bridge decline.

“Structurally deficient bridges are bridges that have significant deterioration in some of the major components of the bridge,” Kelly explained. “These bridges are all safe for travel, but they do need to be maintained and monitored on a regular basis to make sure that they are able to carry the loads that they are subjected to each day.”

That maintenance can be expensive, and so can any repairs. Last November, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed and Gov. Tom Corbett signed a transportation funding bill to address Pennsylvania's deteriorating roadways and bridges. The bill increased vehicle registration fees and moving violation fines to raise additional revenue for transportation repairs. Kelly said that this was a step in the right direction, but not enough to keep Pennsylvania’s rural roads healthy.

“States and municipalities that are charged with the upkeep of these roads are doing a tremendous job with the resources that they have available,” Kelly said. “But the reality is that they simply don’t have enough funding to keep the roads and bridges in good condition and to implement all of the needed safety features on these roads.”

According to Kelly, gridlock in Washington, D.C. over federal transportation funding is exacerbating the problem. With no long-term federal budget in place, states are stuck at the drawing board when it comes to planning maintenance and repairs.

“States are unable to tackle larger, longer-term projects,” Kelly said. “But it also means that maintenance gets deferred because money isn’t available, which means that roads that are already in maybe fair or mediocre condition can slip more quickly into poor condition.”

According to the study, 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s rural roads are in “poor condition.”

“These are roads that typically have a large number of potholes or significant rutting or cracking in the roadway,” Kelly explained.

Hazards like that can lead to crashes, which might explain Pennsylvania’s unusually high rural road fatality rate of 2.6 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel.

“That adds to more than two and a half times the fatality rate on all the other non-rural roads in the state, which is about 0.91 fatalities,” Kelly said.

The federal highway trust fund, which finances state transportation projects such as those necessary to repair and maintain Pennsylvania’s bridges, is currently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. If it does go bankrupt, states like Pennsylvania will face large cuts to already strapped infrastructure budgets.