558 Bridges Over Troubled Infrastructure in Pennsylvania

With the federal government slow to assist, Pennsylvania chose to embark on a massive upgrade to over 500 bridges.  Here’s how its Department of Transportation is making it happen. 

Project Snapshot:

The bridge has dutifully spanned Catawissa Creek in eastern Pennsylvania since the Roaring Twenties when Calvin Coolidge was president and the American automotive sector was cranking out just 3.5 million cars a year.

A century later, the rural span was the epitome of America’s crumbling infrastructure, one of the 65,600 structurally deficient bridges out of the 607,300 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory.

How Pennsylvania state officials responded to this and 500 other crumpling bridges on the byways and rural reaches of its state is now commanding growing attention as a way of breaking through America’s infrastructure logjam while Washington policymakers can’t seem to summon the resolve to make a dent in the problem.

The state passes a law allowing for unique public-private alliance with investors, developers and contractors to take a serious swipe at restoring the crumbing bridges across the Keystone State.   As a result, 558 bridges will be replaced over a four-years period – ending the end of 2018 – at a cost of $899 million, according to Michael Bonini, the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation P3 office. (P3 standing for “public-private-partnership.”)

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Key Facts

Number of bridges to be replaced: 558

Completion date: end of 2018

Cost: $899 million

Novelty: A unique public private partnership, enabled by a state law passed several years ago. Plenary Group USA and Walsh Investors provide financing and long-term management, which includes a includes 25-year maintenance program.

Key Takeaways

Perhaps never before has such a massive bridge replacement program been undertaken in America in such efficient, coordinated fashion.

By combining 558 bridge replacements in one effort, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation streamlined financing for the far-flung effort through a unique public private partnership, enabled by a state law passed several years ago. Plenary Group USA and Walsh Investors provide financing and long-term management.

The state turned to one designer, HDR, to as much as possible strive for similar design elements in all projects, tweaked as needed to accommodate unique requirements of each site.

One firm, Walsh/Granite, a joint-venture team, lead all construction efforts, streamlining the efforts and achieving economies of scale wherever possible.

Lastly, the state has an agreement with Walsh Infrastructure Management to provice 25 years of maintenance for the 558 bridges. Typically, a government builds an asset and enhancing the lifecycle of it is not top of mind.

In Pennsylvania maintaining the asset over a prolonged period is top of mind from design, through construction and sustained maintenance – a pioneering innovation, according to Michael Bonini, the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation P3 office.

Annual Value of State and Local Construction Put in Place 2008-2016

(Value in Millions of Dollars | Details may not add to totals since all types of construction are not shown separately)

2008 23.6 Million
2009 22.0 Million
2010 24.2 Million
2011 25.5 Million
2012 27.0 Million
2013 28.8 Million
2014 29.2 Million
2015 31.5 Million
2016 30.7 Million

Key Players

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Matt Girard, 49
Matt Girard, 49
Plenary Group, Group Head, Civil Division
“It’s the sheer size of it, the purchasing power – the efficiency of doing so many projects with one team, one design. State and local taxpayers know exactly what they are paying for.”
Michael Bonini
Michael Bonini
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Director of Public Private Partnerships
“558 bridges will be rebuilt in a four-year construction window ending December 31, 2018. Yesterday we started out 390th bridge.”
Arik Quam, 44
Arik Quam, 44
Walsh Construction, Business Group Leader, Pennsylvania Heavy Civil
“It’s an effective way for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to get a lot of bridges constructed quickly. Every site is more unique than you probably think.”
Roger Drake, 56
Roger Drake, 56
Clearwater Construction, Vice President of Business Development
"This is a real shot into the infrastructure market in our industry.”

Before   The crumbling bridge over Catawissa Creek, built in 1924, before its recent reconstruction.

After   The span now crossing Catawissa Creek now safely carries more than 600 motorists a day.

Before The crumbling bridge over Catawissa Creek, built in 1924, before its recent reconstruction.

After The span now crossing Catawissa Creek now safely carries more than 600 motorists a day.

Photo courtesy of Roger Drake

Roger Drake values the bridge revitalization effort as a source of needed jobs.

The work, in the rural reaches of the state, is appreciated by construction workers like 56-year-old Roger Drake, a vice president with Clearwater Construction. He said the firm typically has 8-10 workers assigned to each of several bridge projects but that labor force swells to as much as 15-20 people per site in peak periods, such as when concrete bridge decks need to be poured.

“This is a real shot into the infrastructure market in our industry,” Drake said. “There is a lot of work and a lot of opportunity.”

“We were aiming for a design that could be easily maintained – a design that could last 100 years”

The Pennsylvania story is being watched closely by city, county and state governments, ports, airports, school districts, water districts and just about every entity that owns a piece of America that has been sorely neglected as the rest of us have been preoccupied by the tech bubble, our mobile phones and social media chatter.

What the Pennsylvanians are executing with their bridge initiative is pioneering on two fronts, according to close observers like Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has singled out the project for national attention in its reports.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation turned to a private contractor who could get the job done faster and at less costs. Those economies were achieved by coming up with simple, common designs and economy of scale in procurement.

Perhaps even more far-reaching is that the bridge project has built in a 25-year maintenance agreement. Typically, when public infrastructure is built, it falls to cash-strapped government agencies to maintain them, a chore that is routinely neglected shortening the life of the assets.

Matt Girard, who heads the civil division at Plenary, the lead firm on the project, said, “We are making lifecycle decisions. That is in the vested interest of taxpayers.”

Robert Allen, 36, the lead designer on the bridge effort, worked with a team of 500 engineers, half from his firm of HDR and half from 24 consulting firms.

“We were aiming for a design that could be easily maintained – a design that could last 100 years, the best construction fit for each particular site,” he said.

Before An 80-year-old bridge recently replaced in Dover, Pennsylvania, near where Confederate soldiers camped out during the Gettysburg battle.

After The newly constructed Dover bridge over Fox Run carries more than 8,800 vehicles a day.

Before An 80-year-old bridge recently replaced in Dover, Pennsylvania, near where Confederate soldiers camped out during the Gettysburg battle.

After The newly constructed Dover bridge over Fox Run carries more than 8,800 vehicles a day.

Armed with a new private infrastructure funding law, Pennsylvania is on the homestretch of a massive 558-bridge replacement program.

The state passed a law paving the way for unique public-private alliance with investors, developers and contractors to build transportation assets.

The bridges will be replaced by the end of 2018 at a cost of $899 million.

The Pennsylvania story is being watched closely by government entities nationally, according to close observers like Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation turned to a private contractor who could get the job done faster and at less costs. Those economies were achieved by coming up with simple, common designs and economy of scale in procurement.

The bridge project has a built-in 25-year maintenance agreement. Typically, when public infrastructure is built, it falls on cash-strapped government agencies to maintain them, a chore that is routinely neglected – shortening the life of the assets.

Matt Girard, who heads the civil division at Plenary, the lead firm on the project, said, “We are making lifecycle decisions. That is in the vested interest of taxpayers.”

Before “Rock Around the Clock” was on the radio when the bridge crossing Tunkhannock Creek opened in 1954, but six decades on its was showing its age.

After The pristine new bridge over the Tunkhannock near Lennox now carries more than 3,600 cars a day.

Before “Rock Around the Clock” was on the radio when the bridge crossing Tunkhannock Creek opened in 1954, but six decades on its was showing its age.

After The pristine new bridge over the Tunkhannock near Lennox now carries more than 3,600 cars a day.

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