In the past decade, declining gas tax revenues due to cars getting better mileage, fewer federal funds, inflation inroads and the absence of construction borrowing by the state have driven PennDOT District 9 project and maintenance funding down by $55 million.
To help counter the loss, and in keeping with the "modernization" directive from the state's 2011 Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, the district has been working on a pair of efficiency initiatives that should save money and reduce motorist frustration:
Precast concrete bridges and "bundling" of bridge contracts.
The idea is to "spend money wisely," said District Executive Tom Prestash at the district's annual "outreach" to municipal officials and the media Thursday. It's a dictum that should always apply, but the funding crisis - the district has only about $84 million for projects and maintenance this fiscal year - provides added incentive.
The precast bridge initiative is so far unique among districts in Pennsylvania, Prestash said.
The district has completed one project - in Bedford County - and plans three more in the next couple years, two of them in Cambria and one in Somerset County, according to Vince Greenland, district executive for design.
Typically, bridges take six or seven months to build, and sometimes as long as two years.
Precast bridges should typically take two months, and the one along Sherman Valley Road in Bedford County took just 21 days - and 10 of those days was for roadwork on the approaches, Prestash said.
It shortened the time for motorists that had to travel a 20-mile detour.
Detours and long completion times are among the major issues that create public resistance to bridge projects, Prestash said.
There were precast footers, abutments, wing walls, beams and parapets, although workers poured the deck, he said. It's possible to use precast deck panels, and projects in some cities have used them in high-traffic areas.
Using precast bridges requires an adjustment in thinking for engineers, who may tend to want to custom-design for particular sites, Prestash said.
But why design for 35.5 feet, he asked, rhetorically, when - say - a standard 38-foot design would do, without causing environmental problems?
"It's not necessary to go down to the 14th decimal," he said.
The district is designing the precast bridges to use "off the shelf," rather than proprietary items, to encourage the widest range of companies bidding on the jobs.
"We're learning as we go," Prestash said.
The bundling initiative is cited specifically in the Advisory Commission report, which suggests handling "100 to 300 bridges at a time."
When the bridges are similar enough, it makes oversight, mobilization and construction more efficient.
District 9 has begun with a pilot project of 14 bridges, all owned by Blair County.
Instead of stretching design out for two or two and a half years, it should take about five months, according to Prestash.
There should be a savings of about 25 percent - or $800,000, he said.
Bidding should occur in May.
"Economies of scale," Prestash said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.