Then & Now: East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge

Just after I began my 10-year anniversary celebration of bridge walking, the Forbes Ave Bridge over Fern Hollow collapsed on January 28, 2022. This accident shone a light on a pattern of infrastructure funding in the time since I became a bridge person. Ten years ago, there were several bridges built, repaired, or replaced in Pittsburgh. Five years later, the flurry of long overdue investment in our infrastructure stopped – before all the bridges that needed help received it. An article on the aftermath of last month’s bridge collapse reminded me that federal funds were allocated toward infrastructure under the Obama administration. As a result, many bridges that were falling apart were fixed or replaced. It seems that when that funding stopped, so did the repairs. Now that new funding has been allocated under the Biden administration, we should see a similar spurt of investment in our infrastructure, starting with the now missing Fern Hollow Bridge.

One of the bridges presumably supported by the Obama infrastructure funding was the brand-new pedestrian bridge across the East Busway connecting the Shadyside and East Liberty neighborhoods. This bridge is 10-years old this month. The “road” surface of the bridge hasn’t held up very well: the paint was faded and the top surface was patchy when I returned this month. On the other hand, the over-the-top lamps and giant glitter looked like they have held up well. Though it’s hard to say in wintertime, the landscaping between the cage and the bridge walls also appeared to be well maintained.

From the bridge, some of the new developments in East Liberty are visible. Looking southwest toward the current location of Whole Foods (soon to relocate), one of the several new apartment buildings along the Baum-Centre corridor is visibly under construction in the far right of the second set of photos. In the third set, the northeast view shows the new South Highland Avenue Bridge and (to the left of the bridge) the final phase of the East Side Bond development that brought several buildings of first floor commercial with residences above.

I was surprised to find that the highly controversial and massive redevelopment of the former Penn Plaza affordable housing complex was not visible from this bridge. Despite being only a quarter mile apart, the first phase of redevelopment is blocked from the bridge’s view by the iconic Motor Square Gardens building. One of the controversies of this new development is that affordable housing units were demolished without replacement for a series of commercial buildings which include the feature anchor of the pricey Whole Foods grocery store.

The pedestrian bridge was controversial when it was proposed and built. It connects the wealthy Shadyside neighborhood to the expensive Whole Foods, a high-end liquor store, and other luxury shops. It is also redundant as the South Highland Avenue bridge is only 0.1 miles away. A quarter mile away, is the neighborhood of Larimar whose residents are primarily living on low-incomes and do not have a walkable route to the lower cost Giant Eagle grocery store or Trader Joes that are just on the other side of the busway from their homes. For years, the residents have been asking for a pedestrian bridge over the busway to give them better access to these stores. Instead of a bridge serving those who need it, an ornamental bridge was built to provide access for those who already have abundant options.

Around the same time that this bridge was built, the Port Authority altered its bus service by eliminating the 94B bus that connected the low-income residents of Larimar with a shopping center featuring Walmart, Giant Eagle, TJ Maxx and similar clothing retailers, and other stores. In addition to providing shopping opportunities for necessities, these locations provided jobs. The 94B bus was never less than half-full (an unusual condition for Pittsburgh buses outside of rush hour). This bus was replaced by the 75 bus, which connected the higher-end shopping centers of South Side Works and Bakery Square through the wealthy residential neighborhood of Shadyside. For years, it was common to be the only person or one of a handful of people riding the 75. Eventually, the Port Authority acknowledged the value of the 94B route and tact it on to the end of the 75 route.

Presumably both the pedestrian bridge and bus route changes of 2012 were supported at least in part by the federal infrastructure funds of the time. With the current round of federal funding, it would be nice to see a greater focus of infrastructure investment for those who need it and not on additional luxury options.

Bridge Collapse: Two Weeks Later

I had intended to do some serious traipsing this weekend in and around Frick Park to see what kind of angles and views I could get on the site of the bridge collapse into Fern Hollow. Unfortunately, a foot injury during the week has limited my mobility to within a short range of my car. Fences and construction tape block unauthorized people from getting closer than the intersection of Forbes and Braddock on the west side of the site.

Below are updates on the activity inspired by or related to the bridge collapse, some of which follow-up on the activity identified a week after the collapse:

  • UpstreamPGH is concerned about and monitoring the environmental impacts of the collapse and reconstruction on Fern Hollow Creek and its ecosystem. (Post-Gazette article, February 11, 2022)
  • City Council extended the Mayor’s Declaration of Disaster Emergency through May 2, 2022. (City Council Resolution)
  • The National Transportation Safety Board investigation posted investigation details on February 7 describing what happened in the collapse based on the evidence reviewed so far. No probable cause has been determined yet. It is believed that the collapse started at the west end.
  • The City’s legislation on establishing the Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment is scheduled for council’s standing committee meeting this week. (City Council pending ordinance)
  • A related piece of legislation to establish public reporting procedures on city infrastructure by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure was also heard and amended in council last week, but a new date has not been set for moving this legislation forward yet. (City Council pending ordinance)
  • The cause of the shift was identified in the bridge that Port Authority closed a week after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse. It is believed that water got into the superstructure and with the freeze-thaw weather we’ve been having expanded and contracted causing the shift. (WPXI news article, February 10, 2022)
  • The City of McKeesport sped up the reinspection and closure of the Versailles Ave Bridge due to the increased risk from the fluctuating freeze-thaw temperatures. (WTAE news article, February 11, 2022)
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has order the inspection of 5 bridges across the state that share the same design as the Fern Hollow Bridge (WTAE news article, February 2, 2022):
    • Canon-McMillan Alumni Bridge in North Strabane
    • Shenango Road Bridge in Beaver
    • Philip J Fahy Memorial Bridge in Bethlehem (walked & posted)
    • McCallum Street Bridge in Philadelphia
    • Murray Ave Bridge over Beechwood Blvd in Pittsburgh (walked, but not posted yet)
  • The final of the Three Sisters Bridges, the Roberto Clemente/6th Street Bridge, will undergo its renovation starting on February 14, 2022, through December 2023. (WTAE news article, February 2, 2022)
  • Allegheny County (the owner of the Three Sisters Bridges) has plans to resolve 25 of its 27 poor condition bridges by 2024 with seven bridges scheduled to be removed or replaced this year. (Post-Gazette article, February 7, 2022)

Bridge Collapse: One Week Later

A week ago yesterday, an important arterial bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh – on a day that President Biden was already scheduled to be in town to talk about infrastructure. Fortunately, while several vehicles, including a bus, were on the Forbes Ave bridge when it fell into Frick Park’s Fern Hollow, no one died. Several people were injured. Some were treated on site and many were taken to the hospital.

The bridge was one of many in the region that are known to be structurally deficient. The City Controller Michael E. Lamb told the Pittsburgh Business Times that “Allegheny County has more structurally deficient bridges than any other county in the nation.” President Biden said in his visit that there are 3,300 bridges in Pennsylvania “just as old and . . . just as decrepit” as the Fern Hollow Bridge. (Pittsburgh Business Times) An editorial in the print edition of this week’s Pittsburgh Business Times noted that the estimated cost to fix all the bridges in Pennsylvania would be $20.7 billion, however, the total allocation of bridge repair funds to the state from the infrastructure bill is $1.63 billion. This is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to maintain the long neglected infrastructure of the region, state, and country. However, it is a drop we didn’t have before. The editorial ends with a call to state and local authorities to make bridge repair a higher priority as “We were lucky with this collapse that no one was killed, but we likely won’t be so lucky next time. Let this serve as a wake-up call.”

There has been a flurry of activity in the wake of the collapse:

On a side note, President Biden said he hadn’t known before that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world (Pittsburgh Business Times). While I have written about this claim before, I recently discovered that my original source for the number of bridges in the city has some errors (including at least one bridge counted twice due to the renaming of the street carried by that bridge), which has shaken my faith in the claim as a few errors like that would put Venice back in the lead.