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PennDOT will foot the bill to replace the Fern Hollow Bridge

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
The announcement comes just three days after the bridge collapse, as work began to remove vehicles from the area.

Pennsylvania will pay $23.5 million to replace the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge, officials at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission announced Monday afternoon. Even as they welcomed the news, many noted that the process to fund needed infrastructure repairs has historically taken much longer, and shouldn’t.

“The state has really stepped up in helping out the region and financing the cost for the new bridge,” said Andy Waple, SPC’s director of transportation.

The SPC is a metropolitan planning organization, which helps to coordinate the use of federal, state, and local funds to improve transportation and economic development in the 10-county region. All of the money to replace the Fern Hollow Bridge is federal, and will not require a match from local sources; that means the region won’t have to pull funding from other key projects.

Waple said the collapse has reinforced the need for sustainable transportation funding at state and federal levels.

“Had we had this boost in federal funding years ago, you know, that bridge might have been one of the ones that -- it may still be standing today.”

In the last decade,the SPC has spent nearly half of its annual transportation improvement funding to fix bridges, and has reduced the number of bridges in poor condition from 1,917 in 2010 to 968 in 2020. However, Waple said there’s a long way to go.

PennDOT can fund the project in part because of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, said Deputy Secretary Larry Shifflety. For 2022, the federal law allocated an additional $31 million to the secretary’s discretionary reserve fund at the agency — known as Spike — which allowed PennDOT to make this commitment.

“Not necessarily the way we’d like to have it received,” he said, referring to the collapse hastening the decision, “but certainly happy that we’re able to have that money coming our way and be able to help the region out.”

Enacting the federal infrastructure law was a major part of President Joe Biden’s agenda in his first year in office, and he touted the importance of the funding when he visited Pittsburgh on Friday.

The SPC and local officials have been talking for some time about the infrastructure challenges in southwest Pennsylvania, said Leslie Osche, a Butler County commissioner.

“It’s a shame that it takes a bridge collapse to get attention at the state-level,” she said, clarifying that she meant the legislature, and not PennDOT, which has long been a partner.

Commissioner Lynn Heckman, who represents Allegheny County at the SPC, urged the agency to work with local universities and “innovate” to fix a lot of bridges “cheaper, and better … because we have way too many bridge problems” to tackle them in the regular way.

The timeline to replace the Fern Hollow Bridge was not specified, but Waple said he believes the state will pursue a “design-build” approach, which generally takes less time.