Facing a multi-billion-dollar highway maintenance funding gap, the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation will consider use of public-private partnerships to address its growing backlog of major bridge reconstruction and rehabilitation projects.

The program, approved by the state’s Pennsylvania’s Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board on Nov. 12, authorizes PennDOT to solicit proposals to design, build, operate and maintain selected bridges around the state under 20- to 30-year concession agreements. Electronic tolling would be implemented on the completed structures to pay for improvements, with any excess revenue applied to other road and bridge projects.

According to a PennDOT statement, projects would include both individual and multi-bridge packages and associated roadwork, involving what the agency calls “structures of significance based on physical size, location, and cost to replace or rehabilitate. These structures are in a condition that warrants timely attention to enhance safety and to avoid disruptions and community impacts if closures or weight restrictions were imposed.”

While PennDOT has not identified specific bridges for P3 project delivery, the agency says it will to apply the program in a geographically balanced manner statewide. In addition to creating a sustainable funding model and accelerating much-needed bridge upgrades, PennDOT says the approach ensures that both local and out-of-state users “contribute fairly to the replacement or rehabilitation of the bridges based on usage.”

PennDOT also used P3 project delivery for the recently completed Rapid Bridge Replacement Program, a six-year, $899-million effort to replace nearly 560 small bridges led by a consortium that included Walsh Construction Co. and Granite Construction Co. Each bridge is being maintained for 25 years by Walsh Infrastructure Management.

As with most other state transportation agencies, PennDOT generates the bulk of its highway and bridge funding through gas taxes. A steady erosion of revenue in recent years due in part to more fuel-efficient vehicles, has resulted in a funding gap of more than $8.1 billion, according to an agency presentation. Last year, PennDOT received federal approval to shift more than $3 billion of funds originally designated for local road and bridge work over the next nine years to maintain the state’s interstate highways.

A sharp decline in state gasoline sales during the early stages of this year’s coronavirus outbreak further strained PennDOT’s finances, forcing a temporarily suspension of all but emergency road and bridge construction during the second half of March. Projects were gradually restored beginning in early April as local and through motorists returned to the roadways.

PennDOT says it plans to announce other changes to its transportation funding structure in the coming weeks.