"We're here today to let you know the bridge is safe."

That's how Tuesday's press conference, held beneath the Thomas J. McCall Memorial Bridge in Weissport, was begun by Michael W. Rebert, District 5 Executive of PennDOT.

That's a pretty firm statement, considering approximately 23,000 vehicles cross it every day, including many tractor-trailers, school buses, and passenger cars. We're sure he's sincere, but from the visual evidence alone, not everyone will believe him.

Rebert and other officials held the press conference because last Thursday an emergency repair was made to the bridge. Rocker bearings atop columns on the west side of the bridge began bending, so wood cribbing was placed next to the bearings.

According to PennDOT officials, such a temporary repair – no matter how unassuming it appears – isn't unusual on bridges. And, they say the repair works well.

Keith McCall, the son of whom the bridge is named and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, wasn't sold on the the band-aid treatment given to the bridge, so he contacted PennDOT personally and wanted more secure repairs made ASAP. Yesterday, steel bracing was welded next to the rocker bearings. If the bearings fail, the bracing will support the bridge.

McCall has said several times he would like to see the bridge replaced. Rebert said a study will be done to determine if the bridge should be replaced or rehabilitated. The earliest replacement could occur would probably be in 2013.

Two years ago, this bridge was listed the fifth worst deck truss highway bridge in the state.

Looking at the columns on the bridge, there is obvious deterioration. PennDOT officials describe the crumbling concrete as "cosmetic." How much concrete must deteriorate before it changes from cosmetic to structural?

The truth is, the bridge was construced in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression. The construction of the span brought real jobs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the government's "stimulus" money wasn't spent on repaving and digging up old gasoline tanks. It was spent on actual projects like building bridges and buildings which created real employment.

Here's what we see eventually happen with the McCall Bridge. At some point, there will be a determination that it might be unsafe. Weight limits will be put on it, inconveniencing everyone with detours over roads not meant for heavy traffic volume. More studies will occur. After years of studies, there will be years of planning.

Logic has succumbed to bureaucracy.

The fact that this bridge has such a low overall ranking, that emergency repairs had to be made just last week to an important weight-bearing component, that the columns are showing obvious weathering, and that the traffic volume of the bridge is sure to increase drastically thanks to continued development along Route 443, should cancel debate on replacement versus rehabilitation.

Replacement is the obvious and responsible way to go.

By Ron Gower

rgower@tnonline.com