Pa. to privatize bridges; what will it mean?

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LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - Friday marked the beginning of a new era.

It was the deadline for companies or consortiums to tell PennDOT they are interested in a massive program to rebuild 500 bridges across the state - including 33 in Lancaster County - over the course of the next six years.

The “Rapid Bridge Replacement Program” is unprecedented in scope and ambition. Never before has PennDOT been able to tackle so many projects in such a brief period of time.

Never before has PennDOT had access to such a large pool of money for improvements. The catch is, it isn’t public money - it’s private.

A 2012 law authorizing “public-private partnerships” will enable PennDOT to team up with a private-sector partner that will finance, design, build and maintain the 500 bridges for up to 35 years. The state won’t have to borrow to build the bridges - the private partner will do that, and be repaid over the lifetime of the contract. By “bundling” the 500 bridges into one project, PennDOT thinks it can save money on design, and ultimately maintenance. That could be a boon to taxpayers, and to motorists, who could see better roads and bridges sooner.

Other aspects of the law could be a bane. The law explicitly permits “user fees” - tolls - on new or rebuilt roads or bridges, though PennDOT officials stress none of the 500 bridges in the rapid replacement project will be tolled. But, down the line, motorists could see more toll booths, or EZ Pass restrictions.

Others worry about hidden costs that could ultimately cost the state and its taxpayers more than if new bridges and roads were built in the traditional way.

Yet many public officials say Pennsylvania’s infrastructure needs are so great that there’s little alternative. The state doesn’t have the money to fix all these roads and bridges; the private sector does.

“The law has opened up some options and created flexibility in funding infrastructure improvements,” said James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission. “So, it may not be the only way but it is another way to raise the funds for needed system improvements.”

One design fits all

More than 5,500 Pennsylvania bridges are deemed “structurally deficient,” and in August PennDOT announced weight restrictions on about 1,000 state and local spans - including 39 in Lancaster County.

Some, though not all, of those spans are part of the Rapid Bridge Replacement Program. The list includes other bridges that have been deemed deficient but haven’t had restrictions imposed, said Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT’s deputy press secretary.

All bridges in the program are similar in size and design. By bundling them, Waters-Trasatt said, the private partner can in effect use one design to rebuild all 500 spans.

That, she said, will save a lot of money.

Waters-Trasatt was unable to say Friday how many firms or consortiums had submitted their qualifications to the state, asking to be considered for the project. PennDOT wants to move quickly, hoping work on some of the bridges can begin by 2015. It hopes all the work can be completed by 2020.

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