New Pa. bridge weight limits bring concerns

The Baltimore Pike Bridge over Darby Creek between Lansdowne and Clifton Heights is one of the spans with new weight restrictions, which in some cases will mean detours of miles for trucks.
The Baltimore Pike Bridge over Darby Creek between Lansdowne and Clifton Heights is one of the spans with new weight restrictions, which in some cases will mean detours of miles for trucks. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 11, 2013

New weight limits on local bridges could leave a fire truck stranded on the wrong side of Willow Run in Lower Gwynedd Township.

Or a heavy truck in Philadelphia unable to take Spring Garden Street across the Schuylkill.

Or a school bus in Chester County forced to detour on its route to students' homes.

The new limits, being imposed by state highway officials to save money, are the most tangible effects of a long legislative fight over transportation funding.

"We need to come to some resolution, and fairly quickly," Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell said. "I've talked to Chester County legislators, some of whom voted 'no,' and asked them to reconsider.

"We need to come up with some kind of funding."

With a public campaign to reduce weight limits on 1,000 bridges across the state, the Corbett administration hopes to prod lawmakers to action.

"For months, I've been explaining to Pennsylvanians and to lawmakers that there are very real consequences to not enacting a transportation funding plan," state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said recently. "Without additional revenues anticipated in the future, I have to make the safe and responsible decision to reduce how much weight is crossing these deteriorating bridges."

Last week, Lester Toaso, district executive of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's southeastern region, said: "The goal is not to create pain for legislators. . . . We're trying to slow deterioration of the bridges." He was out on Baltimore Pike in Delaware County, explaining the lower weight limit posted on the bridge over Darby Creek in Clifton Heights.

Lawmakers return to Harrisburg on Sept. 23. They left for their summer recess July 1 after efforts to reach a deal on transportation funding collapsed in the final hours.

Faced with Gov. Corbett's proposal for $1.8 billion in additional funding, a $2.5 billion increase approved by the state Senate, or a $2 billion plan offered by House Republican leaders, state lawmakers picked none of the above.

Amid wrangling over how much to provide for public transit, how much to increase fuel taxes and motorist fees, and linking transportation to efforts to privatize the state liquor business, lawmakers couldn't agree.

Now they're hearing about it.

Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) said Lower Gwynedd Township Manager Larry Comunale told her the Fire Department's 38-ton ladder truck wouldn't meet the new 19-ton weight restriction on a bridge on Gypsy Hill Road.

"They were concerned a fire engine could get across, but the ladder truck would not be able to make it," Harper said.

Comunale said, "Our concern is that emergency vehicles going to any kind of emergency might take a little longer to get there because of the route they'd have to take." He said the township was still awaiting word from PennDot on the possibility of getting a waiver to use the bridge.

"When I realized a fire truck was too heavy, the next thing I thought about was school buses," Harper said. She said she wrote to local school districts, urging them to check the new weight limits on local bridges to see if buses, which typically weigh about 17 tons, could make their usual routes.

"It's definitely a real problem," Harper said. "In suburban Philadelphia, it's school buses and fire trucks. Statewide, it's commerce."

Jim Runk, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said truckers were worried about the extra cost of detouring around restricted bridges. He said residents of many rural towns rely on trucks "for everything they wear, eat, and use," and would face higher costs and transportation delays.

PennDot plans to post new weight restrictions on 86 state-owned bridges and 48 locally owned bridges in the five-county Philadelphia region in the next few months.

Thirty-seven of the bridges are in Bucks County, 36 in Chester County, 12 in Delaware County, 44 in Montgomery County, and five in Philadelphia.

The bridges range from a 14-foot span on Barren Hill Road in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, to the 442-foot Spring Garden Street bridge over the Schuylkill and Martin Luther King Drive in Philadelphia.

In most cases, bridge weight limits will be reduced from 40 tons to 36 or 32 tons, although some that have already been reduced will be lowered further.

That won't affect most vehicles, as the typical car weighs about 1.5 tons and a typical ambulance about five tons.

But dump trucks weigh about 36 tons, and a loaded tractor-trailer 40 tons.

By imposing more conservative standards on bridge conditions, PennDot is pushing more bridges onto the weight-restricted list.

The current count in the five counties is 49, with six of those getting revised limits.

Bridges are not in any worse shape than they were earlier this year, but PennDot is using stricter guidelines to set the limits.

So Pennsylvania will jump in the national ranking of states with bridges limited or closed: It will rise from 35th place to 27th.

"The less weight we put on them, the longer they will last," Toaso said. "The secretary had to take some steps to try to reduce the wear and tear."

Of the 2,755 state-owned bridges in the five-county southeastern Pennsylvania region, 462 are structurally deficient, with significant deterioration in their decks, supporting members, or superstructures. An additional 796 of the bridges are "functionally obsolete," with features, such as lane widths, that don't meet current standards.

Most bridges in the state are more than 50 years old.

"A bridge, like everyone else, declines faster after 50," Harper said. "We need to step up the pace on repairing or replacing those bridges.

"I'm afraid if we don't do it now, it could be years," she said.

"And we just don't know when we're going to drop one."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or

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