Some Hope Gas Tax Will Fund Bridge Repair, Construction


ANNAPOLIS—Republican Sen. Richard Colburn of Dorchester voted against Maryland’s recently passed gas tax increase, but now hopes some of the new money will go to replacing the Dover Bridge in his district.

The new taxes, initially expected to raise prices at the pump by 4 cents a gallon this July, might help to expand funding for the rehabilitation and replacement of Maryland’s deteriorating bridges.

As of April, 87 of the 2,572 Maryland State Highway Administration maintained bridges were structurally deficient, which doesn’t mean they are unsafe, but that they have areas that need to be repaired or replaced, according to data from the State Highway Administration.

Another 373 bridges maintained by the State Highway Administration are functionally obsolete, which means they have lanes that are too narrow or are otherwise not built to current standards, according to the 2012 National Bridge Inventory Database compiled by the Federal Highway Administration.

“It’s a major public safety concern,” Colburn said of the Dover Bridge, which is considered functionally obsolete because of its narrow lanes.

In 2011, 39 states had a higher percentage of deficient bridges than Maryland, according to a report by the Transportation for America Coalition, an organization dedicated to transportation reform. Pennsylvania had the highest percentage of deficient bridges.

Maintenance and replacement of the State Highway Administration’s bridges is mainly funded by the federal government, but Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund takes on about 20 percent of the cost, said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The Transportation Trust Fund is used to pay for transportation infrastructure projects and maintenance. About one-fifth of the fund’s revenue comes from the gas tax. The rest comes from sources such as vehicle titling and registration fees.

Before the new gas tax, known as the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013, passed, the fund was projected to run out of money by 2018. The increased gas tax is expected to yield more than $116 million in additional revenue in its first year, which should help fund projects such as mass transit and road maintenance.

There are approximately 60 major bridge rehabilitation or replacement projects underway on state maintained roads, Buck said.

Bridges are considered structurally deficient once the superstructure, substructure or deck receives a rating below five on a scale of 0 to 10, Buck said.

The deck is the roadway. The superstructure supports the deck and the substructure reaches the ground, supporting the superstructure.

Of the 2,572 state-maintained bridges, 567 had a deck, superstructure or substructure value just one level above structurally deficient, according to the 2012 National Bridge Inventory Database. The State Highway Administration is not responsible for the other half of Maryland’s more than 5,000 bridges.

The Dover Bridge, an 80-year-old mechanical swing bridge over the Choptank River bordering Talbot and Caroline counties, received a rating of five for its deck, which means the primary structural elements are sound, but the bridge may have section loss, cracking, spalling or scour, according to the Recording and Coding Guide for the Structure Inventory and Appraisal of the Nation’s Bridges.

The superstructure received a satisfactory rating of six, as did the substructure, according to the database.

Buck said a rating of five may mean there are cracks or potholes, but because each bridge is different it’s hard to come up with a standard explanation for what goes wrong.

Colburn said it would cost about $45 million to replace the bridge, which swings horizontally into the channel to allow boats passage.

Buck said the State Highway Administration is fully aware Eastern Shore legislators would like to see the Dover Bridge replaced, but the money is not available now.

Although the bridge is functionally obsolete, “it isn’t a top priority from a structural perspective,” Buck said.

But Colburn and others worry that ambulances on the way to the hospital in Easton might be delayed in emergencies because the Dover Bridge’s antiquated drawspan sometimes gets stuck.

He’s also concerned because the lanes are only 11 feet wide and it is not uncommon for two trucks to pass each other and clip off each other’s mirrors.

Ken Decker, the Caroline County administrator, agrees the Dover Bridge is too narrow.

“If two tractor trailers pass on the bridge, you’re going to have to butter the fenders to get by,” Decker said.

Decker said engineering for a new bridge has been underway for about two years, but “there’s a big jump from engineering to construction funding.”

He thinks it’s too soon to tell whether the increased gas tax will help fund projects like the Dover Bridge, but ideally construction would begin soon after engineering is completed.

The 87 deficient bridges maintained by the State Highway Administration are all in the process of being replaced or repaired, Buck said. Thirty-two are under construction or soon to be under construction, and the rest are in design, Buck said.

Money from the gas tax funneled through the Transportation Trust Fund helps pay for projects like the Crosstown Bridge in Cumberland, which is currently under construction, Buck said.

The Crosstown Bridge in Cumberland, a long bridge elevated overtop neighborhoods and businesses, will cost $17.3 million to clean, repair and paint, in conjunction with another bridge project on Maryland 51 over the CSX Railroad and Canal Parkway.

The bridge needs a complete remodeling, said Sen. George Edwards, R-Allegany.

The bridge’s deck, superstructure and substructure all received satisfactory ratings of five, according to the 2012 National Bridge Inventory Database.

Although the majority of bridges worked on are structurally deficient, non-deficient bridges are also worked on for reasons such as widening to accommodate traffic, or to extend the bridge’s longevity, Buck said.

One example is a $3.2 million cleaning and painting project currently underway for two bridges on I-695 over the Patapsco River and over Hammonds Ferry Road in Anne Arundel County.

Buck said scraping the existing paint down to bare metal and putting on three coats of new paint helps to keep the beams in good health for 20 to 30 years.

“We clean and paint bridges all the time, not because they are structurally deficient, but because our engineers have determined that it increases the lifespan of the bridge,” Buck said.

Twenty bridges were fixed or replaced by the State Highway Administration last year. In that time, 10 more bridges became structurally deficient.

Since 2007, 121 state-owned bridges classified as structurally deficient have been rehabilitated, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation Consolidated Transportation Program.

Stephen Davis, deputy communications director for Transportation for America, said his coalition works to make sure there is a greater focus on fixing current infrastructure rather than working on new projects.

“That would certainly be the hope,” Davis said, of how the gas tax might help increase repairs of deteriorating bridges.

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