Houston Run Bridge

Traffic drive across the bridge on Rt. 30 over Houston Run in Salisbury Township Thursday, May 27, 2021. Bridge was built in 1930 and is scheduled for replacement in 2022.

A major infrastructure bill being debated in Congress could accelerate efforts to upgrade aging bridges in Lancaster County, where just 31% of bridges are rated as being in “good” condition.

And despite efforts in recent years to replace or repair bridges here, about 13% of the county’s bridges are in “poor” condition, according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation data.

More than half of all bridges in the county — 56% — are rated in “fair” condition, which means they may have some deterioration but are structurally sound.

The ratings are the product of regular inspections required by the federal government. And though most bridges in the county are in “fair’ condition, that’s not necessarily bad, according to a county transportation official.

“I think the health is reasonably good,” said Robert Bini, the director for Land Use & Transportation at the Lancaster County Planning Commission. “By virtue of having been able to invest significant funds into bridges in recent years, we’ve been able to, overall ... improve the quality.”

Since 2016, PennDOT has replaced more than 550 bridges in poor condition across the state, including 30 in Lancaster County, through the $899 million Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, made possible by a 2012 law authorizing public-private partnerships for transportation-related projects in Pennsylvania.

PennDOT is conducting or planning 16 bridge preservation, rehabilitation or replacement projects in the county, according to its list of ongoing projects.

The approximately 13% of Lancaster County bridges in poor condition is an improvement from 2018, when more than 16% of the county’s bridges were categorized as poor in the National Bridge Inventory, the federal database that includes most bridges on public roadways.

Not all of Lancaster County’s bridges are accounted for in the inspections data. State and federal law do not require routine inspections of small bridges owned by counties and municipalities, of which there were an estimated 7,000 in Pennsylvania in 2012, according to a study from the Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee.

An expensive priority

President Joe Biden is  proposing to spend $115 billion to modernize roads and repair 10,000 bridges across the U.S., part of his American Jobs Plan aimed at improving the nation’s infrastructure.

That money could provide a much-needed boost for Pennsylvania, which received a “D+” grade for its bridges in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2018 report card. At the time, the state had double the national average of bridges in “poor” condition, according to the report.

The Biden administration and congressional Republicans appear to be at an impasse over the specifics of the bill, though a small group of senators from both parties continues to try to devise a compromise package.

One of the primary sources of funding for Pennsylvania’s bridge improvements is Act 89, a 2013 bipartisan law that invested more than $2 billion in the state’s transportation system.

Additionally, as mandated by two Obama-era laws, state and local agencies have moved away from a “worst first” approach to bridge maintenance to one that emphasizes more consistent investment in infrastructure over time.

“If you invest funding at a relatively nominal level, it’s gonna allow you to maintain that asset, extend the useful life of it, so that you avoid the syndrome of simply letting it deteriorate over the years,” Bini said. “You keep investing over the lifecycle of the asset and attempt to extend the life of that asset.”

Having a plan to maintain infrastructure and setting aside money for repairs ahead of time prevents having to do more costly maintenance later on, County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said. 

“You don’t get into a situation where you fall way behind,” D’Agostino said. “We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve done a really good job in allocating resources to make sure the county-owned bridges are where they are today.”

On the hunt for funding

Earlier this year, PennDOT said it needs more than twice its annual budget, amounting to another $9.3 billion a year, to maintain the state’s current transportation system. In response, Gov. Tom Wolf established a commission in March to provide recommendations for future transportation funding in the state.

PennDOT is considering bridge tolling, fee increases and congestion pricing on roads as possible solutions to avoid shifting funding from its other regional projects, according to its website.

The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate, where opposition to tolling bridges is strong, approved a bill in April that would require PennDOT to receive legislative approval to toll nine major bridges throughout the state.

Additional federal funding along the lines of what Biden is proposing could help address bridges in poor and fair condition and increase Pennsylvania’s bridge preservation and rehabilitation projects in the future, wrote Doug Knoll, a district bridge engineer at PennDOT, in an email.

The age, materials, environment and traffic volume on a bridge, among other factors, can impact its health, Knoll wrote. In 2020, the average age of state-owned bridges in Lancaster County was 66 years, and it was 55 years for locally owned bridges, according to the Lancaster County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation plan. Several bridges, including some of the county’s famous covered bridges, date to the 19th century.

Disruption worth it

Bridge repairs often lead to road or lane closures for months. But PennDOT’s ongoing bridge replacement project on Route 230 near Musser Road in Mount Joy Township, which began in April, has “not affected” JB Hostetter & Sons Inc., a hardware store down the street, said Kent Hostetter, who manages the company’s hardware division.

“It seems that it takes a pretty long time to get the job done,” Hostetter said. “But I think that area did flood out over the past years. And I think it’s a good idea that they’re replacing it.”

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