As the saying goes, the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem. The Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation has long known it has a major problem: thousands of structurally deficient bridges. In 2008, the state list of such bridges hit a peak of 6,034—the most of any state in the country.
But since then, PennDOT has taken a series of aggressive follow-up steps. It has pushed bridge repairs and replacements, removing from its list more than a third of the subpar structures. Now, the agency is in the midst of its $900-million Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, which is using non-traditional finance and delivery methods to replace 558 bridges in the state by 2017.
Additional funding through a 2013 state law also has bolstered PennDOT’s highway plans, allowing it to add capacity while continuing its bridge mission. In light of these efforts, ENR MidAtlantic has named the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation its Owner of the Year.
When Leslie Richards took office as PennDOT’s new secretary in early 2015, she was well aware of the state’s ongoing efforts to address its failing bridges. “When I came in, I did a full asset-management assessment,” Richards recalls. “The first thing I thought I’d find was that we did such a good job that we didn’t have to aggressively continue that program. I was surprised to find that’s not the case. We still need to be as aggressive as ever, even though we’ve made great strides.”
With its roster of structurally deficient bridges down to 4,000, the Keystone State has managed to shed the dubious honor of having the highest inventory in the U.S.—Iowa now tops the list. But with a total bridge inventory that tops 25,000, the agency adds hundreds of aging spans each year to the deficient category. “We have to maintain above 300 structurally deficient bridge projects just to stay on level,” Richards says.
Innovative delivery methods are helping that effort. After the state General Assembly passed public- private-partnership legislation in 2012, PennDOT crafted a P3 scheme to accelerate its bridge program. The plan aims to replace 558 bridges through a design-build-finance-maintain arrangement between PennDOT and Plenary Keystone Partners, a partnership of Plenary Group USA and Walsh Investors. Most of the bridges are less than 75 ft long and located in rural areas. The 558-bridge package is believed to be the first P3 of its kind in the U.S. The agreement calls for the Plenary Keystone Partners team to maintain the bridges for 25 years after construction. Walsh Construction and Granite Construction began work on the first batch of projects in 2015, and the final group is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.
Greg Ciambrone, senior managing director and vice president of The Walsh Group, says the project has moved forward seamlessly, despite potential political risk. The administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett (R) drew up the agreement, but the plan is being executed under Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who took office in January 2015.
“Right before commercial and financial close, there was the election,” Ciambrone says. “A lot of times, with P3s, there is a great deal of political risk,” he adds. “What’s encouraging for this one is that, even though the change of administrations could have created additional risk for our team, we were very pleased that the commitment was there from all parties.”
Pennsylvania also continues to follow more traditional paths to fund its other transportation needs. A big plus was Act 89, which Corbett signed into law in November 2013. The law provides an additional $2.4 billion for transportation over five years and eliminated the state’s flat 12¢-per-gallon gas tax, replacing it with an equivalent increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax.
Richards says Act 89 allows PennDOT to continue its bridge program while addressing other vital needs. As of March 1, 2016, municipalities had received $445 million for roads and bridges—a 47% increase from pre-Act 89 levels. “I was a former local elected official,” Richards says. “Partnering with local municipalities, I understand firsthand the tough decisions they have to make and the limited budgets they are working under. We’re looking for ways we can help them in any way we can.”
Between 2014 and 2018, Act 89 also could provide an additional $495 million for public transportation and $144 million for the multimodal fund. PennDOT also is helping transit agencies to consolidate and save administrative costs. Further, she says the state is taking a hard look at improvements to the state’s three ports, looking to help them to take advantage of the expanded Panama Canal.
Act 89 also enabled the state to move forward on several large highway expansion and rehabilitation projects, says Jim Ritzman, deputy secretary for planning at PennDOT. Before Act 89, only 2% of state highway funding went for widening projects or other new capacity. One Act 89 beneficiary is the state’s 95 Revive plan. The multiphase initiative seeks to improve and rebuild portions of Interstate 95 in southeastern Pennsylvania, including five major projects in Philadelphia. “Without Act 89, there wouldn’t be much of anything to fund them,” Ritzman says.
As part of 95 Revive, work is underway on elements of the Betsy Ross Bridge/I-95 interchange project in Philadelphia. In March 2015, a joint venture of Driscoll Construction Co., Blue Bell, Pa., and R.E. Pierson Construction Co., Pilesgrove, N.J., started work on a $160-million bridge-ramp project at the interchange. Completion is expected in 2017.
Act 89 also enabled PennDOT to get going on the long-delayed Central Susquehanna Valley Transportation project. The $670-million job includes a new 13-mile, four-lane, limited-access highway near Selinsgrove and Winfield. Work began last year on a $155.6-million, 4,500-ft-long bridge over the West Branch Susquehanna River.
Early this year, construction started on the U.S. 422 Schuylkill River Bridge project, in Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia. The $97.4-million project includes new, wider bridges and upgrades to related interchanges. Completion is expected in 2020.
Looking ahead, PennDOT, like the other states, will get annual increases in its core federal highway funding through the $305-billion, five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, signed into law last December. In addition, PennDOT is competing for a share of the FAST Act’s grants for significant highway and freight projects. The agency planned to submit three projects for the new grant program, called FASTLANE. The largest of the three is a plan for freight-related improvements along I-95 in Philadelphia.
Richards says PennDOT has plans to modernize and improve how it operates. Technology is a major initiative, including finding better ways to collect and analyze data. For example, the agency aims to work with local and county employees to collect data using digital check lists via computer tablets. PennDOT believes that tactic can help to standardize and aggregate data better.
Ritzman says the state also is ramping up pilot projects and studies to improve projects’ quality and delivery. “We are one of the best [DOTs] in the country for working with academia, associations, contractors and consultants,” he says. “If someone found a better way to do it, we want to be aggressive in figuring out how to incorporate that in what we do.”
The agency is teaming with industry groups on those efforts. Bob Latham, Associated Pennsylvania Constructors executive vice president, says his organization is having discussions with PennDOT about several areas of improvement under the organization’s Transportation Quality Initiative. Areas of focus include improvements in the quality of materials and pavement and in contractual working relationships. Another goal is to launch a workforce initiative.
Latham says he hopes to see PennDOT reinstitute its partnering program, accelerate decision-making at the local level and move more quality-control responsibilities to contractors to reduce costs.
“We see a lot of positive things happening with PennDOT in terms of developing our working relationships [and] claims reduction and moving projects along,” Latham says. “They have a good, progressive culture there.”