Target 11 investigates costs of covered bridges

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PITTSBURGH - There's no denying it they are beautiful to look at, but Target 11 discovered that millions of your tax dollars are going to repair and restore these aging bridges.

And on top of that, many of them don't carry much vehicle traffic and some of them are only used by pedestrians.

Years ago, Pennsylvania had 1,500 covered bridges. Today that number has dwindled to 215.

Washington and Greene counties are home to 30 of these covered bridges.

"Everybody that comes to visit us is excited to see them," said Jerry Davis, a resident of Greene County.

For decades, the covered bridges have lured visitors to this area. But many of them are now starting to show their age, and the costs to maintain them are adding up.

A $500,000 federal grant paid for improvements to the Shriver Bridge in Greene County last year, and this year the Cox Farm Bridge will get a $650,000 facelift.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle asked taxpayers in Greene County if it's worth it.

"Historically it's worth it, but I don't think it's worth that much, nowhere near that much," said Ivan Morris.

"If we are going to sink our money into something, let's sink it into something that's been around a long time. I noticed a lot of people with weddings coming out here to take pictures," said Greene County resident Leonard Simmons.

Target 11 uncovered the federal government handed out nearly $10 million for 22 covered bridge projects in 11 states this year.

Three bridges in Pennsylvania received more than $2.3 million in taxpayer funding. But Target 11 discovered it's not just federal funding supporting the covered bridges. Counties across Pennsylvania get a percentage of the gas tax for road and bridge maintenance. And in some counties such as Washington, some of that money goes to repair covered bridges.

"Well, our government is in deep debt, Pennsylvania families are struggling, we really need our legislators to be covering our backs, not bridges," said Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation, a government watchdog group.

"It's not a lot of money and it enhances the entire experience, and is growing the economy, growing the entire tourism economy of western Pennsylvania," said U.S. Rep. Mark Critz (D) Johnstown, who helped to secure the federal funding for the covered bridges in Greene County. Critz contends it is money well spent.

"This is a big, big package of what heritage and tourism is doing in Pennsylvania now. It's the second biggest industry in Pennsylvania," said Critz.

Part of that is the annual bridge festival now in its' 42nd year. The festival attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.

"Our local folk here are passionate about the bridges, they drive over them everyday. They are part of their life," said J.R. Shaw, of the Washington County Tourism Agency.

But critics contend that funds to preserve covered bridges should come from private donations or local tax dollars, not federal and state funds.

"Covered bridges are great things to look at. They are also great parts of our transportation heritage, the problem is we may not have a heritage as a country worth looking forward to if we don't get under control," said Pete Sepp, of the National Taxpayers Union.