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May 21, 2010

The replacement of the 100-year-old Duke Street Bridge is the end of a 24-year story for Dauphin County, Pa., but it could be the beginning of a long-term solution for other local governments struggling to address their backlog of bridges in need of repair.

The replacement of the 100-year-old Duke Street Bridge is the end of a 24-year story for Dauphin County, Pa., but it could be the beginning of a long-term solution for other local governments struggling to address their backlog of bridges in need of repair.

Also known as Dauphin County Bridge No. 32, the Duke Street Bridge is soon to be the last structurally deficient bridge in the county’s inventory. Over the past 24 years, the county has quietly worked to replace all of its structurally deficient bridges, and the Duke Street Bridge, which is currently under design for a replacement in 2012, will be the only one left after the county’s Hanover Street Bridge is replaced this year.

The Federal Highway Administration estimates that 12% of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient and 14% are functionally obsolete. The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials estimates that it would cost more than $140 billion to repair them all. Industry insiders and citizens alike wonder out loud how we will be able to afford to repair this infrastructure, but Dauphin County’s story shows one way it is possible.

The county owns and maintains 50 bridges, and it uses the National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS) inspection program as the basis of its bridge replacement and rehabilitation program. In accordance with federal regulation, the county inspects each bridge over 20 ft in length every two years, conducts load-rating analyses and submits the required documentation to its state department of transportation. But 24 years ago—with 30% of its bridge inventory deemed structurally deficient—the county decided to take it one step further. County officials recognized the impending burden of balancing required replacements against the folly of continuing to maintain aging structurally deficient bridges, so they developed a capital bridge management program.

“We knew there was no way we could afford to sink thousands of dollars into maintaining bridges that were so close to the end of their useful life, and we also knew there was no way we could afford to replace the bridges using only county funds,” said Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste. “So, we decided to prioritize the bridges that were most in need of replacement, based on their condition and their importance to the community, so that we could begin pursuing funds right away.”

The county’s replacement ranking and weighting system consists of two main categories: the condition of the bridge and its function in the community. Within both categories, six components are used to establish and quantify a particular bridge’s replacement priority. The bridge condition category includes structural condition appraisal, estimated remaining useful bridge life (without major maintenance) and the load posting. The bridge functionality category includes the curb-to-curb width, annual daily traffic (ADT) and detour length.

The program objectively identifies the county’s bridge replacement priorities and provides planning-level cost estimates. This enables the county’s managers and its engineer to pursue funding opportunities and direct maintenance dollars to the appropriate bridges.

When a need for replacement is identified, the county immediately begins seeking the funding it will need to complete the work, knowing full well that it can often take years for such funding to be awarded. The county works collaboratively with planning partners and governmental agencies to program the funds it needs and replaces the bridge long before it needs to be load-posted or is in danger of failure.

But there’s more to the story than simply being proactive. Dauphin County learned very early in this process that competition for funding is fierce. Local governments that seek funding from the state and federal government need to be very organized and knowledgeable of the process to succeed. What can these governments learn from Dauphin County’s example?

Start early
Local governments’ first source of funding for bridge replacements in Pennsylvania is Liquid Fuels revenue from gas taxes, but this money is often consumed by a municipality’s basic roadway maintenance, snow removal and paving needs. As a result, funding from outside sources is usually needed. Most often, this means seeking state and federal transportation funds through the local metropolitan planning organization (MPO).

Projects can either be programmed on the state level or earmarked directly in the federal legislation, but it can take years—sometimes more than a decade—to get a project successfully programmed by the MPO. Therefore, local governments must have a plan that identifies years in advance when a bridge will require replacement and its anticipated funding requirements. Then they must begin working the appropriate channels as early as possible to pursue all available funding sources.

The Rte. 743 Bridge over the Norfolk Southern Railroad in Dauphin County is a great example of the long-term planning it can take to secure the necessary funding for a bridge replacement. This “orphan” bridge was originally built by the now-defunct Reading and Lebanon Railroad Co., but termination of the railroad company also terminated the bridge’s ownership. Though technically the bridge had no owner, local officials recognized its importance and committed themselves to its care. In addition to the 12,000 vehicles per day that use the aging, structurally deficient bridge, it carries truckloads of the famous Hershey chocolate bars from the Hershey factory across the railroad to America’s eager hands.

Seeing that the bridge was in need of replacement, a group of stakeholders (including local, county, state and federal officials; PennDOT; local business leaders; engineers; and financial consultants) stepped forward to pursue funding for the project. After more than 10 years of hard work, the group has assembled a funding package from multiple sources for this $10 million project that will be under construction later this year.

Look under every stone
Depending on a project’s location, its role in economic activity and other factors, many sources of funding are available beyond Liquid Fuels revenue. These include but are not limited to,
the following:

  • Federal critical bridge funds awarded through an MPO’s planning process;
  • State critical bridge funds awarded through an MPO’s planning process;
  • Transportation Equity Act “earmarks”;
  • State grant programs; and
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF).

Know the process and show you can do the job
No matter whom you seek funding from, the organization or government agency is going to want to see a well-thought-out plan for the project and proof that you can get it through all of the necessary phases (engineering, permitting and construction). No organization wants to see its money tied up in a project that goes nowhere, so you have to be able to show them you have the wherewithal to get the project delivered.

This is where the assistance of a knowledgeable engineer can be crucial. While some local governments like Dauphin County have a lot of experience navigating the bridge replacement funding and delivery process, many local governments may be entering uncharted territory. An engineer experienced in both the technical requirements and the funding processes can help them understand exactly what they need to do to apply for funding and what their application must show. The engineer also can help them with the advance planning needed to shepherd the project through its phases, outlining the permitting and approvals that will be required and the timelines associated with such tasks. If a local government can go to the funding organization with a plan this well thought out, the organization is more likely to feel confident the project will be completed (and thus more likely to award the requested funds).

“You really have to have your ducks in a row when you apply for funding,” said Haste. “You have to show exactly why the project is needed, who it will benefit and how it will be accomplished.”

Once the project is funded, a knowledgeable engineer who is experienced in completing state and federally funded bridge replacements is essential in planning and executing the project to ensure all requirements are met in the timeliest manner. Navigating the state and federally funded bridge replacement process can be challenging, and the entire project can be jeopardized if the local government does not meet project delivery deadlines set by the funding source.

Local governments that identify the need for replacement early, search for creative sources of funding as soon as a need is identified and enlist the support of a knowledgeable consultant to navigate the funding and delivery process can obtain the funding they need to replace their infrastructure. Using this approach, Dauphin County has replaced 15 bridges over the past 24 years, which is almost one-third of its bridge inventory. That level of success has not gone unnoticed by the county’s neighbors either.

Just across the Susquehanna River, Cumberland County has embarked on a bridge management program of its own, which was modeled after Dauphin County’s program. Though Cumberland County officials had dutifully maintained and repaired their 28-bridge inventory for years, time had taken its toll on many of the bridges, and several were in need of replacement. Unfortunately, they did not have the funds to replace even one of these bridges. Just two years into implementing a bridge management plan like Dauphin County’s, however, they have already secured the funding for one bridge replacement and are in the process of securing funds for a second.

Cumberland County’s Director of Planning Kirk Stoner is very pleased with the effort.

“Our county bridge capital improvement program has delivered exactly the benefits our engineer predicted,” he said. “Also, the commissioners have already utilized the program to communicate the timelines of the bridge replacement and maintenance efforts to their constituents.”

Though the task of replacing the nation’s deficient bridges is daunting, the examples of Dauphin and Cumberland counties show that it is possible.

About The Author: Emberg is a vice president of Herbert, Rowland & Grubic Inc., a consulting firm that provides civil engineering and related services to public- and private-sector clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region. He also is the principal operating officer in ch

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