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.

“Poor Condition” Forbes Ave Bridge Collapsed Yesterday

Yesterday, after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh a photo circulated on social media of one of the steel support beams of the bridge completely rusted through. This photo was taken in 2018 and reported to the City’s 311 system. While the photo also showed cables that had been added to the bridge to presumably take over the job of the steel beam that then ended in mid-air, the person submitting the photo was concerned that this might not be sufficient. I have seen similar rusted conditions on other bridges that I have walked over or under in Pittsburgh. I cannot remember if it was the Negley Ave bridge over the busway, the Charles Anderson Bridge over Junction Hollow in Frick Park, both, neither, or a handful of other bridges. (Note: both of these bridges are rated in poor condition.)

A neighbor quoted in a Tribune Review article after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse wondered why the bridge hadn’t been repaired or replaced before the accident since it was known to be in poor condition. According to BridgeReports.com, which pulled inspection data on the bridge from 1991-2017, the bridge has been rated as in poor condition since 2011. Based on my experiences and exposure to bridges, I am not surprised that a bridge was left in poor condition for over a decade. This morning, I pulled data from the National Bridge Inventory on the 449 inventoried bridges within a 6-mile radius of downtown Pittsburgh. I was surprised to find that only 10% of these bridges were rated in poor condition.

Below is a chart of the 48 bridges rated in poor condition within a 6-mile radius of downtown, which includes some that are outside the boundaries of the City of Pittsburgh. In those cases, the city owner would be the municipality they are within. The first four columns are the data I pulled from the National Bridge Inventory, the final column is from BridgeReports.com. Both sources were updated through 2018, which means that there have been some changes since then, including the possibility that more bridges have fallen into a poor state. I marked in italics the bridges that I am heard went through renovations in recent years and in bold the one that collapsed. The bridges with hyperlinks are the ones that I have walked and blogged.

OwnerBridge DescriptionYear BuiltYear RenovatedRated Poor Since
StateIsland Avenue Bridge1900
StateWetzel Rd over Pine Creek1936
StateBlvd of Allies over cliff19502018
StateBlvd of Allies over Forbes195219842017
StateRamp U over Old Brady St195419852013
StateRamp R over Brady195619852017
StateRamp H over Forbes, Diamond, 6th Ave196220121997
StatePeoples Rd over Girtys Run1963
StateWashington Ave over P&O RR1965
StateFt Duquesne to 10th St19681988
StateBlvd of Allies over another cliff198120012018
RailroadWest Ohio St over NS RR190319581991
RailroadN Ave & Brighton Rd over NS RR190519292009
County9th Street – Rachel Carson Bridge192619942013
CountyJacks Run Rd over Jacks Run19802019
CountyWible Run Rd over Wible Run1987
CitySecond Ave over Nine Mile Run1886at least 1991
CityShaler St over Saw Mill Run1900at least 1991
CityLowrie St over Rialto St190019722008
CityElizabeth St over Gloster St190019792014
CityRidge Ave over NS RR19031957at least 1991
CityTimberland Ave over Saw Mill Run1909at least 1992
CityFremont St over Girtys Run1911
CityLincoln Ave over Girtys Run19111950
CityLarimer Ave over Washington Blvd1912at least 1991
CityGrant Ave over Girtys Run19141986
CityKlopper St over Girtys Run1915
CityLincoln Ave over Girtys Run19151986
CityFrazier St over Saline St191519892007
CityS Negley Ave over E Busway19241973at least 1991
CityW Carson St over Chartiers Creek192519782009
CityAnsonia Pl over Saw Mill Run192519981995
CityMaple Ave over N Charles St19291953at least 1991
CitySwindell Br over East St193019902009
CityCalera St over Streets Run1931at least 1991
City28th St over Busway & RR19311974at least 1990
CityE Main St over Chartiers Creek19342002
CityCharles Anderson Bridge193819872012
CityMission St over S 21st St193919822010
CityRiver Ave over Bike Trail193919862008
CityGanges Way over Streets Run19512016
CityE Liberty Blvd SB over walkway19682009
CityForbes Ave over Fern Hollow19702011
CityHerron Ave over Busway & RR19802018
CityMcArdle over Sycamore St19832017
CityMilroy St over I-27919862011
Other Local AgencyCentre Ave over East Busway19792008
Other Local AgencyPenn Ave over East Busway19812018

Breaking News: Fern Hollow Bridge Collapse

A bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh this morning. While not an iconic bridge, the Forbes Avenue Bridge over Fern Hollow was significant as the sole road link over Frick Park. With this link missing, motorists and those using public transit will have to travel several miles out of their way through some very congested roads. Pedestrians and bicyclists have some shorter options using the park’s trails.

The bridge was built in the early 1970s and as far as I know has not had any significant maintenance work done since then. It is owned by the City of Pittsburgh. Based on the National Bridge Inventory by the Federal Highway Administration, the bridge was in “Poor” condition, had an inspection frequency of 18-24 (units were not included, hopefully this is months), the structural evaluation was “Minimally Tolerable,” the substructure was rated “Satisfactory” while the superstructure was rated “Poor,” average daily traffic was 10,000-15,000, and the detour route would add 2-5 miles. In addition, this site estimates the replacement cost at $6.5 million. I could not find the date of the last inspection on the NBI site. Based on a summary of inspections on BridgeReports.com, which sites the NBI as its source, the bridge was inspected every two years between 1991 and 2017, so presumably there were additional inspections in 2019 and 2021.

There was a bus and some other vehicles on the bridge when it collapsed. The two passengers on the bus were taken to a hospital with “minor injuries” as was a third person. Seven other people are reported to have “minor injuries” that did not require a hospital visit. The City’s first official press release on this disaster says that rescue efforts concluded at 8:30am, but that underneath the bridge was still being checked for potential victims – some of the park’s well-used trails pass underneath. WTAE has videos from the scene; the Tribune Review has quotes from nearby residents on what they heard and saw this morning. This story has also made national news with coverage by on the US News and World Report website.

The coincidences: President Biden is scheduled to speak in Pittsburgh today about infrastructure, including bridge maintenance, the overnight snow may have limited vehicular and foot traffic over and under the bridge, and I just happened to be somewhere where the news was on this morning in time to see the first news report on WTAE (I never watch or read the daily news).

Mayor Gainey is quoted as saying “we were fortunate.” The people using the bridge were unfortunate that the bridge collapsed when it did, but given that it did collapse, they were fortunate in that it appears there are no serious injuries and no deaths. It was also fortunate that the collapse happened before rush hour and on a bridge that was over land. If this was one of our river bridges or if it happened during rush hour, serious injury and death seem impossible to avoid.

Deferred maintenance of bridges is a real and serious thing. Bridges are a crucial part of our daily lives (especially in places like Pittsburgh). Every time I walk over the Negley Ave bridge over the busway, I warily eye the rusted structure. The old Highland Ave bridge over the busway used to spark the same reaction, but it was fortunately replaced several years ago. The Smithfield Street bridge has holes through the sidewalk. How far do we push our “poor” condition bridges before investing in maintenance and repair?

Then & Now: 16th Street Bridge

urbantraipsing turns 10 in May. To mark a decade of urban-traipsing and bridge-walking, I will be revisiting twelve of the Pittsburgh bridges I walked early on to see the changes 10 years brought to them and their surroundings.

I started walking and photographing bridges to get different angles and views of the city. In 2012, the 16th Street Bridge provided views of two major, controversial development sites: the Produce Terminal and the former St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church.

During the summer of 2012, the Produce Terminal seemed on the cusp of being redeveloped, and partly demolished. However, significant opposition to the demolition plans killed that proposal. For years there was no visible progress. Eventually, after extensive negotiations, a new development proposal was approved and implemented (see the first photo pair below). Simultaneously, several new developments popped up nearby, replacing much of the sea of parking I complained about in my original post on the bridge (see the second and third photo pairs below).

The former St Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was visible from the 16th Street Bridge in 2012. Six months later, it was demolished to make way for the widening of Route 28 despite parishioners efforts to save their church (see a 2013 Tribune Review article for more). I followed the story of their fight for their building closely at the time, which is what I believe prompted me to take a photo of the church from the bridge (see the fourth photo pair below).

A Structurally Unsound Bridge

This year’s Architectural Dessert Masterpiece was inspired by a trip to Vermont where I explored 14 covered bridges within an hour’s drive of Rutland. I was surprised by the amount of variety in these bridges. Most were only wide enough for one car lane, but one was definitely made for two-way traffic and a couple had sidewalks incorporated. The colors and shapes varied from bridge to bridge. Some appeared to be based on a truss-type structure while at least one looked like it had an arch infrastructure. Ages also ranged from the 1830s (Taftsville Bridge) to 1970s (Quechee Bridge). You can view all 14 bridges in the slideshow below.

Sadly, shortly after construction, my covered bridge experienced a collapse. While the incident is still under investigation, an anonymous authority stated that the collapse is believed to have been trigged by a motorist exceeding the posted 5 mph speed limit.

I’m surprised that this is my first total collapse over the eight Architectural Dessert Masterpieces that I’ve created. My first, the Parthenon, experienced a partial collapse that actually made it look even more like the original. The next closest to disaster was the Marina Tower that merged into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The collapse highlighted several tips for future constructions. First, I confirmed that pretzels really do make excellent piers as I originally demonstrated in my Pittsburgh suspension bridge. Second, I learned that wheatless gingerbread still has the same (or similar) strength as traditional gingerbread as the roadbed remained secure throughout the disaster. Third, I found that wheatless gingerbread is more pliable than traditional gingerbread, which resulted in more warping when transferring the pieces to the baking sheet and during baking. However, the other side of the pliability is that it is easier to trim after baking than traditional gingerbread. If I use this recipe again, I will plan to make adjustments to the dimensions of the pieces post baking. I believe that will resolve the structural issues by creating straight edges that can support each other.

Vermont Covered Bridge Slideshow

Hebron Snow People

Pittsburgh dinosaur hunting is on pause this month. Instead, the public art feature of this month is from Hebron, CT. Hebron is a typical small Connecticut town built up at a crossroads. It was incorporated in 1708 and its current population is just under 10,000. In passing through on a recent trip around New England, my eye was caught by a public art display of snow people on the town green. I originally assumed that this was one of the fiberglass fundraisers like the Pittsburgh DinoMite Days dinosaurs, however these snow people are made of Styrofoam. However, like the fiberglass statues, each one is decorated by a different artist. They seem to be a new annual tradition of the town, having first appeared in the winter of 2020 then hibernating over the summer before returning this winter. Scroll through the slideshow below to see all eight of the snow folks (my favorite is the hula dancer).

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Ribbon-Cutting

The ribbon-cutting for the CAP, now called the Frankie Pace Park, happened on schedule on November 22, 2021. The Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh Post=Gazette, WTAE, KDKA/CBS, and SAI Consulting Engineers reported on the ceremony. The Tribune-Review and WTAE also have articles on the resolution earlier this month by City Council to name the park after Frankie Pace (1905-1989), a community activist and business owner in the Lower Hill.

The CAP is a project in Pittsburgh “fixing the mistakes” of Urban Renewal. The Crosstown Blvd was built in the 1960s creating a freeway in a canyon dividing the Lower Hill neighborhood from downtown. The Lower Hill neighborhood, formerly predominantly poor and black, had already been demolished by this point to make way for the Civic Arena and other cultural amenities that were never built.

The CAP is a park on a bridge built over the Crosstown Blvd and is intended to reconnect downtown and the Lower Hill, while the Lower Hill is being rebuilt by the Penguins hockey team. Construction began in June 2019 and was completed in November 2021.

This post is an update on the on-going photographic series to watch the development and usage patterns of the CAP. Periodically, once or twice a year, I return to the site to take new photographs. I plan to take the next series of photos next year in the warmer weather to see who uses the park and how. At the end of the post, there are links to the previous posts in this series.

Locating the CAP


Previous Posts in the Series

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Nov. 2021

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: May 2021

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the CAP: Dec. 2019

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2021

Overview

The Lower Hill is a notorious site in Pittsburgh, a scar on the city from the height of Urban Renewal. A vibrant (but poor and predominately Black) neighborhood was demolished in the 1950s so the City could build a cultural mecca centered on a Civic Arena, but most of the site ended up not being built and was left as parking lots.

Now that the arena has been demolished and replaced adjacent to the former location, the Penguins hockey team has the development rights to rebuild the Lower Hill, stitching back together the fabric of the city and reconnecting the remainder of the Hill District neighborhoods with downtown.

However, grand language describing the wonderful benefits to a city are part and parcel of any major development project, including the 1950’s Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill. Fifty years later, the Urban Renewal of the Lower Hill is rarely, if ever, described as a good thing. In fact, the current redevelopment is sometimes described as undoing the mistakes of that project. However, can the negative financial, social, and emotional repercussions of the original demolition and decades of disconnect be undone simply by reinstating (most of) the former street grid?

This blog post is part of an on-going photographic series to watch the redevelopment of the Lower Hill. Periodically, approximately once every six months, I return to the site to take new photographs. In addition, I include links to articles about the project that I’ve encountered since the previous post in the series. At the end of the post, there are links to all the previous posts in the series.

What’s New

Ground has broken! There are a large hole, giant piles of dirt and debris, and closed sidewalks as construction begins for the new FNB Tower, the first building to be built on the site.

This was also the first time that I’ve visited the site on the day of a Penguins game, which was interesting to see how the sea of parking lots get used for events. At least one of the lots is reserved for employees only during events. There is also a slight price differential, the lot closet to the arena costs $30 to park for the event, while the one at the top of the hill is “only” $25.

Photos

Lower Hill in the News

Controversy and concerns continue over the redevelopment of the Lower Hill from the Executive Management Committee that was appointed to answer how the redevelopment would benefit the entire Hill District in private meetings (September 17, 2021, Public Source, & September 23, 2021, NextPittsburgh) to the impact of a pending change in owner of the Penguins (November 23, NextPittsburgh) and the pending registration of a second community organization in the Lower Hill, which would then also participate in the Lower Hill development activities meetings (November 19, 2021, Public Source). The potential new owner has previously been involved in real estate development around sports arenas (November 21, 2021, Post-Gazette).

Locating the Lower Hill


Previous posts in series

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: May 2021

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Dec. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jun. 2020

Keeping an Eye on the Lower Hill: Jan. 2020

Keeping an Eye on Uptown: Introduction