State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch

State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, shown speaking at a 2012 meeting.

The state Transportation Department recently unveiled a new application for smartphone users.

It allows motorists to check their phones and learn about accidents, construction or other traffic tie-ups before they start driving. It will even give them audio real-time updates while they drive.

The app was not developed by PennDOT, but was developed for PennDOT by a private software developer.

Had PennDOT undertaken the project, writing the guidelines, advertising and bidding would have taken at least nine months, state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said Wednesday morning.

“In nine months, how many kids in T-shirts and sneakers could write apps, and have them out on the street,” Schoch asked the group of about 25 construction industry professionals gathered at the Mid Atlantic BX economic development summit.

“That’s an example of something that government probably shouldn’t be doing, because it changes so rapidly that others can do it better,” he said.

Since the passage of the state’s Public-Private partnership law in 2012, PennDOT has invited companies to look at the services the department provides — such as providing traffic information — and propose ways it could be done better.

The intent is to provide services more efficiently and quickly at a lower cost. It also shifts the cost of projects onto the private sector.

The largest public-private partnership project under consideration is the state’s rapid bridge replacement program. That initiative promises to replace 550-650 of the state’s more deteriorated bridges under a single contract. Some 33 of those bridges are in Lancaster County.

Schoch said he anticipates savings of as much as 40 percent in the design cost of each bridge because the same design will be replicated statewide. Similarly, he expects saving 30 percent of construction costs due the same materials being used for each project.

He was comparing against PennDOT’s traditional methods of designing and building each bridge individually.

“Clearly, there is economy of scale savings,” he said.

There will also be a savings in time, Schoch said. The design and replacement of that many bridges would have taken PennDOT eight-to-10 years under the old rules. The statewide P3 contract should replace them in three-to-four years.

Because of the use of prefabricated materials, the replacement time for each bridge will also go more quickly. That means roads will be closed for less time, he noted.

Schoch said the P3 law does not create revenue.

Funding for the P3 projects could come in different ways. Tolling could be added to busy roads and bridges where users could repay the replacement costs.

There may also be “availability payments,” in which PennDOT makes annual payments to the companies who replace bridges or repave roads where there would not be enough tolls to cover the costs, said Christopher Shaeffer, a project manager of URS Corporation, a consultant which advises P3 companies.

Shaeffer, speaking in a panel discussion at the summit, held at the Eden Resort, noted the rapid replacement project bridges are in addition to the bridges PennDOT will replace under its normal schedule.

Schoch and Shaeffer also spoke of the possibility of redeveloping 10 train stations along Amtrak’s Keystone line — including Lancaster — with a public-private partnership.

Such a project could see private-sector developers building parking facilities, commercial or housing projects in conjunction with the stations, Shaeffer said.

Dale Witmer, PennDOT special assistant for finance and innovation, who leads the department’s P3 efforts, said the concept moves away from he approach traditionally used by PennDOT. But, he said, it is not new.

In fact, the nation’s first public-private partnership was developed in Lancaster County, he said.

The Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike was constructed in the late 1700s to move produce from the county to Philadelphia.

The toll road on what is now Old Philadelphia Pike, replaced a patchwork of rutted roads. It was built by private investors following the American Revolutionary War, at a time when the new government had little money.

After completion, 1,000 Conestoga wagons — the “big rigs” of their day — traveled the road daily.

“But for the private sector, that road would not have been built,” Witmer said.

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Bernard Harris is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer who covers transportation issues and Lancaster City Hall. He also blogs about bicycling at Road Apples and Potholes. He can be reached at bharris@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6022. You can also follow@BHarris_LNP on Twitter.