It’s been two months since the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge over Pittsburgh’s scenic Frick Park. Below is a summary of updates from across the city and state on activity related to the collapse. If I have missed anything of interest, please share it in the comments and I will try to include it in future updates.
As of March 8, construction is expected to start in April on the new bridge.
The design of the new bridge was released causing chagrin among neighbors, urban designers, accessibility advocates, mobility advocates, and users of the park. The only people I have heard directly or indirectly say only positive things about the new bridge design are engineers (though some engineers also have concerns).
The Pittsburgh Business Times compiled a detailed special report on bridge conditions in the region and what is needed to repair them. Allegheny County has more bridges than any other county in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Statewide, Allegheny County ranks 37 out of 67 for the most poor condition bridges and 44 out of 67 for the most good condition bridges.
Two local start-ups (robotic- and drone-based) are working to provide bridge inspection services that could create more detailed, less biased condition analyses in less time to municipalities and other bridge owners. (Pittsburgh Business Times, February 25, 2022)
The City’s legislation to establish the Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment was signed by the Mayor on March 3, 2022, and is effective as of that date. (City Council legislation page)
The City’s legislation to establish public reporting procedures on city infrastructure by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure also became effective on March 3, 2022, with the Mayor’s signature. (City Council legislation page)
There are no new updates on the bridge repair being conducted by Port Authority, but as a resident in the affected area, I recently received a letter from Port Authority. This letter announced that they were taking advantage of the existing detour to implement some stop upgrades to the T stations in Beechview and Dormont. These renovations had been on the schedule for the near future and were being bumped up due to the current rerouting. The stop upgrades are expected to take 6 months. The letter did not mention how that would impact the resumption of normal T service. Based on the press release from February 16, there are only 6-8 more weeks of work before the bridge is restored. It seems unlikely that normal T service will resume in Beechview for several months after that with the continued concurrent work on the stops in the neighborhood.
A February 4th Facebook Live Q&A with PennDOT is the only reference I have found yet that says the inspections have been completed on the 5 other bridges in Pennsylvania that use the same K-design as the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge. At about minute 19:30, a representative from PennDOT states that these bridges have all been inspected or will be inspected by the end of the day on February 4th. He also said that they are all in better condition with ratings of “fair” and “good,” instead of Fern Hollow’s “poor condition” rating, and none have weight restrictions.
The City of Pittsburgh announced on March 2 that they are starting maintenance repairs to the Centre Avenue Bridge that will take place on the underside over several months. The work is not expected to affect pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
The City of Pittsburgh announced in the middle of March that they were “proactively” closing the northern sidewalk on the Meadow Avenue bridge to conduct “necessary,” but “not an imminent structural concern” repairs to the bridge following a routine inspection.
When I first started walking Pittsburgh’s bridges, the South Highland Avenue Bridge rated among those that were more than a little creepy. First, you were partially caged in. Second, the integrity of the wooden planks holding you up seemed more than questionable. I have no doubt that this bridge was rated in “poor condition” at that time. Now, the new bridge is considered in “good condition” per the National Bridge Inventory as of its November 2017 inspection. It has presumably been inspected twice more since then (November 2019 & November 2021), but those results have not been made publicly available yet.
The reconstruction of this bridge in 2013 made me hopeful that the similarly creepy bridge at South Negley Avenue would also shortly be reconstructed. This has yet to happen. My hope is renewed with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act coupled with the greater attention “poor condition” bridges are receiving this year after the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. However, according to a recent article on the redevelopment of the busway station adjacent to the South Negley Avenue bridge (Tribune Review, February 16, 2022), funding issues and coordination with Norfolk-Southern Railroad are causing continued delays to the proposed reconstruction of this bridge.
The new South Highland Avenue is a definite improvement over the last one. I no longer cringe at the thought of walking across it as being fenced in is better than being caged in (second photo set below). Yet, it is still not a pleasant experience to walk this bridge. On the other hand, the Smithfield Street Bridge, for example, is a nice bridge to walk despite the many places where the sidewalk has rusted out providing direct views to the river below. The difference in these experiences is in part due to the bridges’ environments – nothing short of climate change will return the former river to what is now the busway and train tracks under the South Highland Bridge. However, design also plays a part in the experience. Many people in Pittsburgh’s architecture and design community are concerned that a poor bridge design will be rushed through on the Fern Hollow Bridge replacement with the excuse that it is an emergency (WESA, March 3, 2022). As the Fern Hollow Bridge has pleasant surroundings, it will be the bridge’s design that makes or breaks the experience of using the future bridge.
The South Highland Avenue bridge was replaced before it turned into an emergency. I assume the reason why it was replaced when it was while the South Negley Bridge continues to rust away is the massive amount of investment and redevelopment that was put into the East Liberty neighborhood in the last 10+ years. Looking west from the bridge, the early developments are visible, including the East Liberty Pedestrian bridge that was last month’s 10-year anniversary featured bridge and the Whole Foods location. These developments are old enough that the “Then” and “Now” views (third photo pairing) look substantially the same. The newer developments are clear in the east view (final photo pairing below), which looks like a completely different world between the “Then” and “Now” views. Next month’s feature will discuss this redevelopment in greater detail.
My uncle Jon, the writer, died this week. While he was and did much more than write, our strongest connection was through words. He taught me the basics of blogging, helped me select the platform for urbantraipsing, and gave me advice and support along the way. After years of living with advanced cancer, he was physically in very poor condition. Mentally and spiritually, he remained strong and very much himself until the end. A creative, compassionate, and witty man, Uncle Jon will be much missed.
Fern Hollow Bridge collapse updates, one month later:
The City’s legislation to establish the Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment underwent several amendments last month, but appears to have reached its final version. Perhaps it will be passed and sent to the Mayor for signature soon. (City Council pending ordinance)
The City’s legislation to establish public reporting procedures on city infrastructure by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure was also amended multiple times. This one appears to have caused more questions as it was also sent for a legal opinion before being passed out of committee. (City Council pending ordinance)
The Port Authority’s South Busway Bridge remains closed with repairs expected to take up to 3 months, though the detour due to the bridge closure is still listed as indefinite (the end date shows as December 2049). (Press release, detour details)