A victory for no one,
But an opportunity, if one can seize it.
Recently, the Commonwealth Court put to bed the proposal by PennDOT to toll 9 bridges across the state, including the I-83 South Bridge, AKA the John Harris Memorial Bridge. Politicians rejoiced. Like they were looking out for our interests. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc stated, “Today’s decision is a win for all Pennsylvanians, a win for all those who stood with us fighting this oppressive overreach, and a win for Pennsylvania businesses who were arbitrarily shut out of the process.” The total estimated cost of the bridges was around $2.2b. Tolling would have freed money to be applied to other needed PennDOT projects. To put this in perspective, it would have been enough money to replace around 1,000 plain vanilla bridges across the state, or about 1 of every 2-1/2 state-owned bridges currently in poor condition. The new Federal Infrastructure monies allocated $1.6 b over 5 years just for bridges. That money would just about replace about half of the 1,250 bridges that would be added to the poor condition group during that 5-year time.
Every year, PennDOT spends around $4.3b on highways and bridges. The percentages vary from year to year of highway versus bridge and PennDOT generally does not split out highway from bridge, so assuming 1/3 goes to bridges and 2/3 to highways, in a normal year, PennDOT has about $1.4b for bridge maintenance, repair, and replacement. Much of this goes to maintenance and repair, but to replace just the bridges that fall in to the poor condition group each year, you would need $500m. Through herculean efforts, PennDOT has managed to beat down the number of poor condition bridges over the last 20 years. The number of poor condition bridges is now less than half what it was. That win came at the cost of deteriorated roads. The headwinds for future revenue are strong, as the recent TFAC report lays out.
Telling the public that the end of the tolling scheme is somehow a victory for the motorist, or the public is a cruel lie. The politicians that are saying it know it’s a cruel lie. In the end, the $2.2b not available from tolling will have to be made up at some point. Today, there is not nearly enough money to meet all transportation needs, not even if the State Police are pushed away from the trough. (Don’t get me wrong, they should!) Every dollar spent on a needed project is a dollar taken away from another needed project. If our politicians were truthful, they would say something along the lines of, “Tolling is not the right way to find the needed revenue to fix our roads and bridges, but unless substantial revenue is raised, through increased taxes or some other fee system that will affect all of you, your roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate. You will see more congestion. You will see more car repair from bad roads. You will see more Fern Hollow Bridge collapses, or in lieu of collapses, many more closed and restricted bridges. Instead of a shared public highway system, it will be every man and woman for themselves and all of you will pay far more in the long run.” The truth is sometimes painful.
PennDOT is looking at the next decade of doing less with less. Perhaps now is the time to take a step back and take another hard look at PennDOT operations. I don’t mean the “push the peas around the plate” type of actions, such as halting employee training, out-of-state travel, nor even the $14m frizzen in studies that led to this particular mis-fire. PennDOT needs to take a cold, hard, look in the mirror and realize that needed funding is not forthcoming, that the Federal Infrastructure boost will only take them so far, and that in the current climate, just keeping the 18 cents a gallon Federal gas tax and 57 cent State gas tax would be the best one could hope for, let alone any necessary increases.
Having worked at state DOT’s for over 30 years, there are periodic waves of funding shortfalls. Most of the pain is endured by staff and popular but “deemed non-essential” programs. Engineers were put on this earth to design and to build. Not doing that kills them psychologically and emotionally. Yet, it is precisely those starvation times that yield the most innovation and change. And in those moments, the engineers and planners can be forced to rethink their most sacred assumptions.
In PennDOT world, nothing is more exhilarating than a new bridge or road opening. It’s catnip for the politicians. Its newness dazzles. It is a benchmark sense of accomplishment for the design team. Everyone is happy. Much less exhilarating is rehabilitation and repair. There are no ribbon cuttings. Its sameness is unimpressive. In this new funding environment, PennDOT will forego the new bridge for the rehabilitated bridge. It will need to squeeze life out of the end of use-life. It will need to be creative in repair and rehabilitation options. And it will need to accept more risk of the slowly deteriorating system. Civil engineers hate risk, bridge engineers hate risk even more. And because of this very strong ethic, you rarely read about a bridge collapse. Fern Hollow is news, big news, because collapses like this are so rare. It is in the same league as commercial airplane crashes. To mitigate the risk, PennDOT will need to make more frequent inspections and use new and less proven technologies to detect weaknesses well ahead of time.
Rethink the network.
In the last 50 years, we have all grown accustomed to being able to get into our car and drive in any direction and get to our destination in the same amount of time. True convenience. The highway network has relied on these redundancies for decades. Going forward, we will have to rethink those redundancies, so that sometimes you have to go in a one specific direction to be able to get to your destination and it might take longer. Bridges especially may be subject to permanent closings or removal rather than replacement. This will lead to longer travel times, and in those cases where EMS is needed, there will be health and life consequences. However, this is the price we as a society will have to pay because we are not paying sufficiently into maintaining a good highway and road system.
Challenge traffic and capacity assumptions.
This is the hardest lift. Baked into PennDOT thinking is the assumption that congestion can only be relieved by adding capacity. This is a core assumption with the I-83 South Bridge project. The current bridge has 7 lanes of traffic. The proposed bridge(s) has 10 lanes of traffic, which is consistent with the I-83 corridor plans near Harrisburg. The Environmental Assessment suggests that the additional 3 lanes will alleviate traffic across the bridge. However, time after time, adding capacity induces demand and in a few short years, the congestion is as bad as it was before construction. Needless to say, even granting that a new I-83 bridge is needed, a 10-lane structure is going to be more expensive than a 7-lane structure. Possibly much more expensive. It may be time for PennDOT to acknowledge and challenge the core assumptions in adding capacity to address congestion and start looking at ways to reduce demand in the existing system. Ultimately, it may be less expensive to get cars off the road – in many cases single-occupancy-vehicles (SOV’s) – than building out. The existing methods for doing this include improving mass transit and creating incentives for carpooling, among other ideas. Certainly, the $5.00 a gallon gas we are currently experiencing is doing some of that work for PennDOT right now.
It is a truism that engineers are good with things and bad with people. I have the highest respect for PennDOT engineers in their strong suits- designing and building things. I have less confidence in those areas of social science and social engineering, that require PennDOT to understand what people do and why and how to change their behaviors. The funding desert that PennDOT is entering must force its leadership to become more proficient at these arenas, and god forbid to hire or contract more experts in these fields and give them the necessary authority to inform important planning decisions. In the language of continuous quality improvement, there is never enough money to address all the needs, never. But there is always enough money to do better.
We are all in this together. And if we don’t find solutions together, we will all suffer together. John Donne said it best.