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Money-Saving Experiment Leads To Rehabilitation Of More Than 260 Pennsylvania Bridges

Courtesy of Walsh Construction
Residents walk across a newly reopened bridge in Caernarvon Township in Lancaster County. The bridge is one of 558 being replaced through the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

One of the largest public-private partnerships in Pennsylvania, the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, is nearing the end of its construction phase. The project promised to provide Pennsylvania with 558 brand new bridges to replace aging structures by 2018.

Jeff Rossi, spokesperson for the project’s manager, Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners, is confident they’ll deliver.

“Each of the PennDOT districts has their normal program of bridges budgeted for replacement or upgrades or rehabilitation,” he said. “The great thing about this project is this updates a lot of the aging infrastructure without touching [those] budgets.”

More than 3,500 of Pennsylvania’s 25,000 state-owned bridges qualify as structurally deficient, meaning they’re safe to drive across but have reached the end of their useful life. The Rapid Bridge Replacement Project was conceived as a way to speed up replacement and save money.

Back in 2012, the state legislature passed Act 88, or the public-private partnership [P3] law, which allows the government to partner with private entities to design, build, finance, operate, or maintain a public “transportation facility”: roads, bridges, tunnels, overpasses, ferries; the list goes on.

PennDOT’s process normally unfolds one bridge at a time, beginning with bidding and ending with construction. The Rapid Bridge Replacement Project identified 558 bridges of similar design, so that a contractor could standardize design and construction.

The 558 bridges are spread across PennDOT’s 11 districts, but broken into three regions: west, central, and east. Many of them are rural roads that see average daily traffic of only about 2,000 cars; some dip as low as 800. But Rossi said those bridges are critical to residents. People are likely tired of seeing roads closed, but it’s a long-term investment, he said.

“Our bridges are designed to last 100 years,” said Rossi. “So I always like to tell people ... hopefully these bridges are here long into our grandchildren’s lives before somebody faces another detour or another replacement.”

Nearly half of the bridges have reopened to traffic: 97 in the west region, 81 in the central region and 68 in the eastern region. Work is in process on many more bridges, said Rossi.

After completion, the bridges will be transferred to Walsh Infrastructure Management, which will oversee them for 25 years in exchange for periodic payments from PennDOT.