Farmers Should Plan Ahead to Avoid Deficient Bridges

9/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. — New weight restrictions on structurally deficient bridges across Pennsylvania are likely to cause detours for many milk-truck drivers, farmers hauling heavy machinery and drivers of other large vehicles.

Faced with a lack of funding for bridge repairs, banning heavy machines from the state’s worst bridges is the best way to extend the safe life of the spans, Scott Christie, the state’s deputy secretary for highway administration, told a meeting of the PennAg Industries Association Transportation Committee on Sept. 5 at the Farm Show Complex.

Speaking to an occasionally hostile crowd, Christie and other state Department of Transportation leaders explained why they believe the restrictions were necessary and what farmers can do in response, insisting they were trying to take farmers’ needs into account while keeping bridges as safe as possible.

In many cases, farmers and farm haulers will be able to apply for special permits for limited crossings of the weight-restricted bridges.

Christie said Pennsylvania has one of the largest, oldest road systems in the country. The average bridge age is 51 years, and 9,000 of the state’s bridges are at least 70 years old.

“We have 300-year-old bridges that were surveyed by George Washington,” he said.

The state owns 25,000 bridges, and about 6,000 more are locally owned.

Pennsylvania also has to contend with the most freeze-thaw cycles of any state, Christie said. Water getting into cracks and then freezing is the biggest contributor to structural deficiency.

Christie illustrated the danger of running heavy equipment over a bridge with an example from Tioga County. The span had been lightly used until Marcellus Shale drilling started.

Steady traffic of drilling equipment ruined the bridge in a week, he said.

Over the past few years, the state has been able to rehabilitate more than 1,000 bridges with federal stimulus money and other short-term allotments. Now that those programs have ended, PennDOT’s current bridge budget is sufficient to fix only a few hundred bridges this year, even with money diverted from paving projects, Christie said.

Pennsylvania has the most structurally deficient bridges in the nation, as many as 6,000, according to PennDOT’s website. The department is in the process of posting weight restrictions on 530 state-owned bridges and 470 locally owned bridges.

The longest and most heavily used weight-limited bridge in Lancaster County carries state Route 441 over Chickies Creek in East Donegal Township. That bridge opened 85 years ago and was rehabbed almost 60 years ago. The almost 1,100 trucks crossing the bridge every day must be under 29 tons, and tractor trailers cannot exceed 33 tons.

Doug Knoll, PennDOT’s assistant district bridge engineer for inspection in Lancaster and surrounding counties, said in a phone interview that combination trucks like tractor trailers are generally allowed higher weight limits than fixed vehicles because of their axle configurations.

Even if the weight restrictions are not posted yet, heavy operators are required to obey the weight limits on the affected bridges, Christie told the PennAg group.

PennDOT does not enforce the weight limits, but if it suspects a violation or is told about one, it asks the State Police to investigate,

Glenn Rowe, chief of PennDOT’s transportation operations division, said the state will be installing signs for alternate routes. PennDOT is required to confine its detours to state roads and is planning to stay with roads marked with the keystone highway shields rather than the smaller “SR” state roads.

While most detours will be under 10 miles, some will be 30 to 40 miles, Rowe said.

PennDOT’s list of weight-restricted bridges includes structures in Lycoming and McKean counties with detours of more than 60 miles.

The detours may seem disproportionate to the size of the bridge. A 17-foot-long bridge in Martic Township, Lancaster County, has a detour which, at 10 miles, is 3,000 times longer than bridge.

The open steel grid deck bridge, which offers a view of the water through the metal matrix of the driving surface, opened in 1935 and carries 338 vehicles, including 61 trucks, a day. The bridge is limited to 27 tons for straight trucks and 34 tons for tractor trailers, Knoll, the district engineer, said.

Though it might be tempting to try to gun it over a little bridge, Christie said it is better to follow the law.

“I can show you pictures” of heavy haulers who tried to speed over small bridges only to collapse the bridge and get stuck, he said.

Rowe said there are ways for farmers to get exceptions to the weight restrictions. A 4902 permit is available for people moving special equipment like farm machinery that would exceed the legal load on a bridge.

There are three options within the 4902. A $15 permit gets one machine across one bridge for one two-way trip. There are also $50 permits that cover a limited number of trips for 12 months or an unlimited number of trips for three months.

The application requires the vehicle weight, the bridge to be crossed, the vehicle’s axle spacing, the number of crossings desired and other information.

Submitting an application does not guarantee a permit, Christie said. PennDOT’s bridge engineers review each application to see how safe it is to allow the load on the bridge. The application is approved only if the machine passes the test.

Weighing one’s vehicle is important, Christie said, because most of the vehicles the State Police weigh on its scales are over the weights listed on applications.

If that happens, Christie said, “you’re done.”

Annual special hauling permits are also granted to truckers of milk, grain and livestock. Those permits go up to 95,000 pounds, Rowe said.

Owners of those permits will still have to abide by the weight limits, so some haulers might have to change their routes. A 95,000-pound vehicle would not be allowed on the East Donegal or Martic bridges mentioned above.

PennDOT tries to issue a decision on manual permit reviews within two days and typically decides in a few hours.

Still, interest in the permits is high right now, so “you may see things slowed down a little bit,” Rowe said.

He recommended applying for a permit 30 days in advance of intended use.

Christie acknowledged that detours around weight-limited bridges would likely increase farmers’ transportation costs, but he said that the worst bridges needed weight limits to prolong their usefulness. He said he assumed farmers would pass their added costs on.

Christie said that PennDOT is not trying to target farmers. “There’s no vendetta against ag,” he said.

PennDOT must request permits to move its own equipment over structurally deficient bridges, Rowe added. School buses and emergency vehicles may also be affected by the weight restrictions.

Both Christie and Rowe said PennDOT is happy to consider proposed regulatory changes. “It helps to have an organization back” a proposal because it shows public support, Rowe said.

Jennifer Reed-Harry, PennAg’s assistant vice president, said her group has been working with the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition to press for changes in state transportation policy. She offered form letters to the gathered farmers that they can send to their legislators.

“We’ve got to keep agriculture moving every day,” she said.

A complete list of PennDOT’s weight-limited bridges may be found at

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