Bridge Collapse: Six Months Later

There was a lot of news about the bridge this month. PennDOT and the Mayor’s office held a press conference on Monday to announce that the bridge may be completed before the end of the year. This unusually fast pace is because construction is underway while the design is still being worked out. Inspired by the event, I went to Frick Park after work and explored the view of the bridge from the northern approach along the Tranquil Trail.

While the news is good for the Fern Hollow Bridge reconstruction, there were hiccups this month on the Swindell and Port Authority bridges.

Below is a slideshow of photos from my hike this month followed by the news updates on the Fern Hollow Bridge and other bridge maintenance and replacement efforts in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

  • The beams for the new Fern Hollow Bridge are being delivered to the site two per day, generating excitement on news and social media. (WTAE video of the first beam delivery, July 26, 2022; CBS article and video, July 25, 2022)
  • Two artists were selected to provide artwork for the new Fern Hollow Bridge (City Press Release, July 25, 2022)
  • Despite the press conference, artist announcement, and beam delivery schedule, there are no new updates on PennDOT’s project page regarding the reconstruction of the bridge.
  • Similarly, no new updates have been posted regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation into the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.
  • The City created a Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment in March 2022, but this commission has not been added yet to the city’s website listing all Boards and Commissions and I have not seen any announcements of any appointments to the new Commission. However, there was a press release this month asking for applicants interested in serving in any of the city’s boards and commissions.
  • WSP USA was selected to manage the City’s new Bridge Asset Management Program. (Tribune Review, July 19, 2022)
  • On Tuesday, Port Authority found a crack in one of the rails on the bridge that was just repaired. The inbound T service was discontinued for two days to enable the replacement of this portion of track.
  • On July 1, Pittsburgh’s Swindell Bridge was closed due to falling debris. The falling debris was noticed during the first phase of repairs, which was repaving the road. (City Press Release, July 1, 2022) The subsequent inspection found that the debris came from the repairs – material accumulated in one of the drainage troughs, putting unusual pressure on the trough and causing it to “tear open and spill” the debris onto route 279 – hours after I had driven under it. (City Press Release, July 5, 2022)


Additional Resources:

Both PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration have interactive maps of bridges for the state and country respective, and their inspection statuses.


Previous Fern Hollow Bridge Posts:

Five-Month Update

Four-Month Update

Two-Month Update

One-Month Update

Two-Week Update

One-Week Update

Day After

Breaking News

Then & Now: Herron Avenue Bridge

Our next stop on the 10-year anniversary series looking at the changes to and around Pittsburgh’s bridges is the Herron Avenue Bridge. This is another bridge that passes over the MLK Jr or East busway. Traveling down the busway toward downtown from the Baum and Centre Bridges we looked at last month, this bridge is three bridges closer to downtown. It connects the Polish Hill and Lawrenceville neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

On the northeastern side of the bridge is the former Iron City Brewery. When I walked this bridge in 2012, there were plans in the works to redevelop this complex of 20 or so buildings. Ten years later, not much has changed on this site – other than the clearing away a large pile of dirt and debris near the loading docks (visible in the second photo pair below). According to new articles about the site published in 2019 and 2021, some exterior stabilization has occurred and there are still plans in the works to renovate the site (WPXI, CBS, City Paper, Pittsburgh Business Times).

One the other side of the bridge, a major transformation is underway changing from a warehouse with large parking lots to a dense mixed-use development. The new buildings are visible from many angles of and from the bridge (see all but the second photo pair below). Construction started last summer and the project website says that pre-leasing was to begin in spring of this year, but based on the information on the website it doesn’t look like this has begun yet. One of the amenities listed is the views, which include the views of downtown stolen from the bridge.

Bridge Collapse: Five Months Later

My foot is finally healed enough for me to begin to explore the site of the bridge collapse over Fern Hollow in Frick Park. I started at the Frick Environmental Center and explored the western slope into the hollow looking for gaps in the trees to see the progress on the bridge construction. The Clayton, Biddle, Bradema, and Tranquil trails all provided glimpses of the bridge site. According to the Hiking Project’s website, the elevation change between the highest and lowest points I encountered was 250′ and the steepest grades were between 13 and 16%.

It was pleasant hiking through the leafy forest, but the foliage hid most of the bridge site. From what I could see through the gaps in the leaves, construction seems well on its way with the four primary support columns erected. In future updates (barring further injury), I will explore the views from the park along the eastern slope and the northern trails.

Below is a slideshow of photos from this exploration followed by the news updates on the Fern Hollow Bridge and other bridge maintenance and replacement efforts in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

  • There are no new updates on PennDOT’s project page regarding the reconstruction of the bridge since my post last month.
  • Similarly, no new updates have been posted regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation into the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.
  • The City created a Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment in March 2022, but this commission has not been added yet to the city’s website listing all Boards and Commissions and I have not seen any announcements of any appointments to the new Commission.
  • The RFP is now closed for the Bridge Asset Management Program that Mayor Gainey announced in early May. (Bidnet.com)
  • Port Authority’s bridge has been repaired and is back in service. The stop upgrades to the stations in Beechview and Dormont have reached a point where they have reopened to use, though repairs (including morning jackhammering) continue.
  • Earlier this month, Public Source published an article revisiting the first four months after the bridge collapse. From this article, I learned that the City has launched a separate investigation into the collapse, that the overworked and understaffed Department of Mobility and Infrastructure will need more staff and resources to implement better bridge management in the city, and that a table of the status of Allegheny County’s poor condition bridges was released in February shortly after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.
  • The Campbell’s Run Road bridge replacements identified in the County’s list of poor condition bridges are indeed happening this year. I have gotten caught up in traffic congestion caused by the detour for the work several times. (WTAE, February 3, 2022)
  • Pittsburgh’s Swindell Bridge is one that has been on the radar since the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. The City announced this week that a first phase of repairs will be conducted over the next couple weeks. This initial phase consists of repaving the road surface. (City Press Release, June 24, 2022)


Additional Resources:

Both PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration have interactive maps of bridges for the state and country respective, and their inspection statuses.


Previous Fern Hollow Bridge Posts:

Four-Month Update

Two-Month Update

One-Month Update

Two-Week Update

One-Week Update

Day After

Breaking News

Then & Now: Centre Ave & Baum Blvd Bridges

The next look back at the bridges I first walked 10 years ago moves “downstream” or toward downtown on the former riverbed now east busway and railroad route. From the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge featured in February, the inbound buses and trains pass underneath three bridges in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood (the South Negley Avenue and South Aiken Avenue Bridges and the Graham Street Pedestrian Bridge) before reaching the approximately parallel Centre Avenue and Baum Boulevard Bridges. The bus station next to the Negley Avenue bridge is currently under reconstruction, otherwise the three bridges and their surroundings in Shadyside are relatively unchanged – except perhaps for some deterioration due to long deferred maintenance. On the other hand, the surroundings of the Centre Avenue and Baum Boulevard Bridges have seen a couple new developments since I first walked these bridges.

The first of these developments is the Luna Parking Garage for employees of the local, ever-expanding hospital giant UPMC. UPMC Shadyside is on Centre Avenue two blocks away from this new(ish) garage on Baum Boulevard. Work had already begun on the parking garage when I walked by in 2012. The permit in the first photo in the then & now sets below is to finish the demolition of the structure formerly on the site. In the paired photo, the landscaping appears in good condition several years after completion of the construction. The second set of photos shows the formerly sloped site change into a massive retaining wall with multi-level garage. On a side note: the “Luna” in the garage’s name is a reference to the Luna Park amusement park that had a short life in the early 1900s on a site across the tracks and two blocks up the hill.

Between the Baum Boulevard and Centre Avenue Bridges is a site that has had a much longer life. Originally a Ford plant and showroom, this building and site were redeveloped by the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) into a research and development space with laboratories, offices, an auditorium, and parking (Pittsburgh Business Times, May 5, 2022). Prior to the redevelopment, this site had caught my eye as I rode the bus by every day on my way to Pitt. The floating doorways and loading docks captured my imagination. My imagination now speculates that these openings were used to create connections with the new addition seen in the fourth photo pair. The pedestrian experience walking by the sloped parking lot in the early 2010s wasn’t pleasant. While the sidewalks felt larger now, the experience was still unpleasant as I felt like I was walking through a pedestrian unfriendly loading and service area while the cantilevered building towering over me felt oppressive. The final photo pair shows the sidewalk experience on both sides of the new addition.

Harrisburg Ducks

Harrisburg is really into public art. I’ve mentioned before that they are a city that turns everyday objects into works of art. I’ve shared my reflections on a sculpture that fascinated me. I’ve also shared posts of the remaining pieces from their Cow Parade. On a recent trip to the city, I went searching for more cows based on the sightings someone posted from 2019. In the process, I stumbled across ducks! I found 3 of the 15 ducks that popped up in Harrisburg in 2019. (I also received confirmation that the stray dinosaur I found on a previous trip to the city was from their version of Dino-Mite Days that happened in 2018.) Below are the ducks I found on this trip. I’ll share the “new” cows that I encountered in future posts.

Then & Now: Penn Ave Bridge Ramp

Closing out the East Liberty portion of the Then & Now 10-year anniversary series is the Penn Ave Bridge Ramp. This ramp inspired the second Pittsburgh edition of What is a Bridge?. As best as I can make out from the data on the National Bridge Inventory, the Federal Highway Commission does not consider the ramp a bridge. It is not marked as one of the bridges inventoried by the Commission. And the data for the Penn Avenue Bridge does not include any approach spans. This leaves me wondering who, if anyone, inspects the ramp.

As I cannot find a public source that shares inspection data of the ramp (if it is inspected), its condition rating is anyone’s guess. However, this lack of data may be attributable to the change the ramp underwent in the last ten years. It was originally a ramp for buses to travel from a major bus stop off Penn Avenue onto the East Busway. With the redevelopment of the East Busway Station, this bus stop was redesigned as a regular on-street stop and the ramp was converted to pedestrian access only (second photo set below). The National Bridge Inventory seems to skip over pedestrian bridges as the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge featured in February is also not listed.

Regardless of the ramp’s condition, its fate now seems tied to the fate of the Penn Avenue Bridge as the gap between the two been filled in with much needed greenspace (first photo set below). The Penn Avenue Bridge was last inspected in May 2020 (which means it probably has been or will be inspected again this month). It received a “poor” condition rating in that inspection – a rating that is worrying for Pittsburghers since the collapse of the “poor” condition Fern Hollow Bridge, despite reassurances from the bridge engineering community that “poor” condition does not necessarily equate to imminent danger.

Then & Now: East Liberty Station Bridge(s)

Just beyond the South Highland Bridge from the East Liberty Pedestrian bridge is the busway’s East Liberty Station. When I moved to Pittsburgh over a decade ago, there were two pedestrian bridges over the busway and train tracks – one at either end of the station – and a ramp providing buses on Penn Avenue access to the busway. Across the tracks from the busway was a one-story, graffiti-covered warehouse, a parking lot, and a drive-through bank. Along Penn Avenue and connected by the ramp to the busway was a major bus stop on its own governor’s drive.

All of this was replaced in 2014-2015 with a transit-oriented development. The two boxed-in (a step beyond caged) pedestrian bridges were demolished and replaced by a new open bridge (first photo pair below) and a crosswalk on the busway. The bus ramp was renovated into an accessible pedestrian ramp (seen in the east view, second photo pair). Plantings were introduced on both the bridge and the ramp, changing this portion of the vast paved, treeless area into a desert oasis. It is still a hot and uncomfortable place to be in the summer months, but at least now there are black-eyed Susans to bring cheer.

The warehouse, parking lot, drive-through bank, and Penn Avenue bus stop were replaced with a massive mixed-use complex called EastSide Bond (glimpsed on the right in the final pair of photos, also visible in the South Highland Avenue Bridge Then & Now post). The new development features 360 residential units, 43,000 sq ft of retail (most of which is occupied, except for the promised anchor tenant), 554 parking spaces in a garage under the buildings, and a 120-space bike parking garage (which I’ve only ever seen a handful of bikes in, probably because Penn Avenue is not a bike-friendly thoroughfare).

Similar to the older, new developments near the East Liberty Pedestrian Bridge, this site and its uses cater to a White and moneyed demographic. However, in 2010, East Liberty had a population that was 67% Black (down from 72.5% a decade prior) and the median income was $23,000. This means the site is catering to an audience that currently makes up a minority of the neighborhood. Perhaps that is why whenever I pass by or stop at one of the retail locations at EastSide Bond, I feel like it has a luke-warm success. In contrast, the Target across the street is heavily trafficked as is the busway station – both are used by the current population.

Once upon a time, Black residents were pushed to East Liberty through Urban Renewal and the demolition of their previous lives. Now, we may be witnessing the pushing out of Black residents through redevelopment and the demolition of their current lives. The current proposed redevelopment of the shopping center south of the East Liberty Station promises to bring the grocery store back and to include 35 affordable units out of 232. There is no mention of whether any of the other smaller retail stores that catered to the current population will be returning. I also wonder if the grocery store will still carry beauty products for darker skin tones when it reopens. Down the street, the redevelopment of the former affordable and predominantly Black Penn Plaza apartments is the latest project that is definitely catering to people who are not the majority residents of the neighborhood, after permitting affordable housing units to deteriorate through neglect before demolishing them.

Then & Now: South Highland Ave Bridge

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.

“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