New Castle News

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February 12, 2013

State considers bridge repairs, tolling

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania is exploring a plan that would pave the way for the state to possibly complete a decade’s worth of bridge repairs in a year or two.

However, the proposal would involve the private tolling of such spans.

A public-private partnership board appointed last fall could be used by PennDOT to bundle hundreds of bridge projects so that the state’s backlog of bridge repairs can be addressed quickly using money from the governor’s transportation plan.

Under that approach, the state would identify similar bridge projects across the Commonwealth and invite private firms to bid on the right to pay for all the projects.

Pennsylvania has more than 4,700 structurally deficient bridges.

Exactly how the public-private partnership concept is integrated into Gov. Tom Corbett’s $1.8 billion transportation plan is likely to be explored during a Senate transportation committee hearing Tuesday, lawmakers said Monday.

There are two general approaches that are used for public-private partnerships in road and bridge work.

In one scenario, the state could identify a single mammoth project that is too costly for the government to do alone, and opt to allow a private entity to fund the work, often in exchange for the right to toll the highway or bridge, Kendro said.

In the other approach, the state can bundle together similar bridge and road projects and invite a private entity to come up with the cost to do all the work at once.

Bryan Kendro, director of PennDOT’s Office of Policy and Public-Private Partnerships, said that under this approach, each bridge project might cost 3 to 5 percent more than it would if it was done individually. But when having the ability to get all the work done almost immediately means that there would savings on presumed escalations in construction prices that would have taken place if it took longer to fix the bridges.

A public-private partnership of this type would not automatically include tolls, because the private builder could make a modest profit by charging the state a little extra. The state would still benefit because a project delayed for several years may increase in cost by 7 to 8 percent, Kendro said.

Kendro said PennDOT can not proceed on any ambitious public-private partnerships until the state’s transportation funding plan is approved. Once that happens, then the state could begin to solicit for proposals. However, companies may make unsolicited bids to do the work. But the next window in which that could happen does not open until May.

The state’s public privatization board has only met twice. At its last meeting, the board — consisting of Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch and Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, three business representatives, a union official and state Rep. Steve Santarsiero — established its policies and procedures and approved a plan to outsource operation of an information hotline.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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