Bridgeport Viaduct: the canary in the capital funding coalmine

I was out of town on business these last two weeks, and plenty has been going down in my absence which I’ll be playing catch-up on, but the really big news is SEPTA’s announcement that it will be closing the Bridgeport Viaduct next summer due to deteriorating safety conditions.

The Bridgeport Viaduct is the Norristown High Speed Line’s single-track approach across the Schuylkill River between Bridgeport and Norristown. SEPTA is concerned about rotting ties and structural corrosion, and estimates that the 100-foot-high bridge needs $30 million in total work; $30 million that SEPTA does not have. SEPTA’s capital funding has been inadequate for decades, now, and now a major piece of infrastructure is on the brink of failure due to the inability of Harrisburg and Washington to properly fund SEPTA’s capital needs, or to arrange other funding sources as was done for NPT. Governor Corbett has now been in office over 700 days, with no plan yet put forward for funding any of the Commonwealth’s urgent transportation needs, transit or highway, despite the collapse of the Act 44 regime created in the waning days of the Rendell Administration. This is a disgrace, and a failure of democracy that this state of affairs has been allowed to persist.

And of course, SEPTA’s actual capital spending is often not within its own control. SEPTA’s main priority is the Federally-mandated Positive Train Control system, due by 2015, without which it cannot legally run the Regional Rail system. Also, it’s easier for SEPTA to get earmarked funding for a glitzy, visible project (like the renovation of Wayne Junction station), and much, much harder to get more system-critical repair and back-end improvements funded (like the replacement of electrical equipment at the adjacent Wayne Junction substation). Politicians love ribbon-cutting photo ops, and it’s easier to arrange one of those at a new platform than a replacement high voltage transformer. So, there has been something of a silent race on for the first major failure due to institutional neglect. Bridgeport Viaduct has won that dubious prize, over stiff competition from the Crum Creek bridge on the Media Elwyn Line (which has already failed once in 1986; the stone stanchions of the older structure are still visible in the woods adjacent to my alma mater) and various critical parts of the ex-Reading electrical system.

Obviously, the connections to Regional Rail and Frontier Division buses at Norristown make up a large chunk of the NHSL’s ridership. The bustitution of the segment will be a hardship even if work begins immediately; SEPTA estimates that the Viaduct will be out for four months at minimum. With any luck, SEPTA’s splashy pronouncement of doom can shake some loose change out of Harrisburg or the delegation in Washington, but such brinksmanship really ought not to be necessary in a functional society. This maintenance was a predictable expense; the bridge is 101 years old. If SEPTA had a predictable adequate funding source and the ability to set reasonable spending priorities, we would not be having this conversation. But it doesn’t, and we are. May it please, please be for the last time.

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