By Jon Schmitz
It might be the Mother of All Detours.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has announced that a small bridge on Route 48 in Lincoln will be posted with a 32-ton weight limit, making it off-limits to cement and dump trucks and tractor-trailers.
The official detour for those vehicles is a Mon Valley odyssey through more than a half-dozen municipalities and across two Monongahela River bridges, about 23 miles.
The bridge is one of 24 in Allegheny County that are getting lower weight limits in a PennDOT program designed to reduce wear and tear and extend the useful lives of the bridges in a time of diminished funding.
Crossing a branch of Wylie Run, the 16-foot-long structure is barely noticeable to passing vehicles, but clearly on the radar screen of inspectors. Built in 1933, it is rated structurally deficient, with poor grades for its deck, superstructure and substructure.
While most drivers won't be affected for the time being, PennDOT says the new limits are a cautionary tale about what the future may hold if it lacks the money to rehabilitate or replace thousands of older, decaying bridges, including 223 structurally deficient bridges in Allegheny County. Nearly 1 in 5 state-owned bridges is so rated, meaning not that they are unsafe but that they are showing advanced deterioration that can lead to weight restrictions and, eventually, closure.
The Legislature has yet to act on proposals to increase transportation funding, but a crucial House vote might come this month. After lawmakers went on recess without approving a bill in June, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch announced the new weight limits, affecting about 1,000 locally and state-owned bridges.
"For months I've been explaining to Pennsylvanians and to lawmakers that there are very real consequences to not enacting a transportation funding plan," he said. "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."
The potential impact on the state's natural gas drilling industry is not fully known, according to a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
"While we are aware anecdotally that certain operations have been negatively affected by these postings, we continue to evaluate the extent of their impact on shale development in the commonwealth. It's clear, however, that common sense solutions are desperately needed to address Pennsylvania's significant infrastructure challenges in the 21st century," spokesman Steve Forde said.
The bridges receiving new weight limits are sprinkled throughout the county, and range in size from the massive Liberty Bridge in Downtown to a tiny structure on Sugar Grove Road in Crescent that carries fewer than 100 vehicles per day.
Most are being posted with weight restrictions of 25 tons or more, limits that generally would apply only to heavier trucks like loaded dump trucks, cement trucks and tractor-trailers.
Among the busier bridges getting new restrictions are the Elizabeth Bridge in Elizabeth Borough, which carries about 27,000 vehicles per day on Route 51 over the Monongahela River; the bridge carrying Route 65 over Spruce Run and Spruce Street in Ben Avon (18,000 vehicles per day); a bridge on Lincoln Way over Long Run in White Oak (14,000 vehicles); on Logans Ferry Road at the county line in Plum (13,000); and on Saxonburg Boulevard over Little Pine Creek in Indiana Township (9,400).
The Elizabeth Bridge restriction will force heavier trucks to take an 8-mile detour to the Clairton-Glassport Bridge, a route that takes them through the narrow streets of Elizabeth Borough's business district. The Route 65 limit pushes trucks to a 9-mile go-around using the McKees Rocks Bridge and Neville Road to Interstate 79. A posted truck detour on Route 30 in North Fayette is 17 miles long.
The Route 65 detour is not causing any problems because the route is an industrial corridor that already had heavy truck traffic, said Norbert Micklos, police chief in Ohio Township, whose force also patrols Ben Avon and Neville.
Chief Micklos said no special enforcement is being conducted at the Route 65 bridge. Having a patrol car sit and watch for suspected overweight trucks, then taking them to a weigh station, would not be an efficient use of police resources, he said.
Sgt. Dave Sandora of the North Fayette police said the impact of bridge detours there has been minimal, estimating that 99 percent of vehicles traveling through the township are within the 29-ton limit.
In Indiana Township, an existing detour stemming from Pennsylvania Turnpike construction had to be altered, making it longer, but "we haven't experienced any problems," police Chief Bob Wilson said. A bridge replacement project on Route 910 has proved to be a bigger headache, as truckers using GPS rather than following the posted detour have gotten stuck on winding, narrow rural roads.
But in Elizabeth Borough, sitting in the shadow of one of the county's biggest structurally deficient bridges, the announced weight limits have officials alarmed.