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Pittsburgh City Council wants to deal with infrastructure, but struggles to decide how

A Crane hoists a Pittsburgh Transit Authority bus on Monday Jan. 31, 2022, that was trapped on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it collapsed on Jan 28, 2022.
Gene J. Puskar
A Crane hoists a Pittsburgh Transit Authority bus on Monday Jan. 31, 2022, that was trapped on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it collapsed on Jan 28, 2022.

Pittsburgh City Council will take another week to craft an approach to the needs of city-owned infrastructure, after a charged discussion of the issue during a council meeting Wednesday.

But the matter is urgent, said Councilor Ricky Burgess.

“We are responsible for the city,” he said. “We have a bridge that fell down and we have others that may fall down. I think we should start now.”

Council is considering three pieces of legislation intended to get a handle on what the city’s priorities should be. The first would create a commission to advise the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure on how best to maintain and improve city-owned assets.

DOMI’s acting director, Kim Lucas, told councilors a lot of the information needed to understand the city’s needs is already available. “This is the work the department does,” she said. She said bridges that need attention are well-monitored, and many are slated for investment in the coming years. But, she added, “The reality is we need more money to perform the work that is recommended. We need more people to be able to manage that money.”

Councilor Corey O’Connor later noted that Mayor Ed Gainey’s office has committed to look for funding to hire those support personnel. Several councilors said the city has to actively pursue new state and federal resources to repair its infrastructure.

Some money will flow to the city from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but “most of those infrastructure bill dollars will be competitive,” said Councilor Erika Strassburger, who said the city needs a plan of what projects to do first, and to decide what pots of money to pursue.

“We may even need to beef up personnel in the city organization that can help solicit these funds and apply for these funds,” said Councilor Deb Gross. “It’s really a full-time job.”

Gross added that the commission should focus on physical infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, and roads — rather than projects involving broadband or social infrastructure.

“What I don’t want to see is that this becomes a commission that is constantly meandering around in its mission,” she said.

Burgess struck a similar note: “We don’t need research,” he said. “We need money and decisions.” But he also raised concerns about the make-up of the commission.

The legislation to create the commission says the body will include various city officials as well as two construction-industry representatives and two members of organized labor. But Burgess said those fields were dominated by white men, and urged council to rewrite the bill to ensure the commission will represent a diversity of backgrounds.

“If you’re going to name people, don’t leave out the entirety of the African American community. I’m going to suggest to you that that’s a little insulting,” he said. “This is a slap in the face to us.”

O’Connor said that the mayor’s office, which would recommend the commission members, committed to making the group diverse. However, Burgess said that commitment should be written into the bill itself, while other council members said they wanted to ensure the commission also included people with expertise in structural engineering.

The bill was held for one week.

A second bill, also sponsored by O’Connor, would require DOMI to regularly publish reports on the condition of city-owned assets, past investment in those assets, and how much money is likely needed to fix them, all using existing data.

“This bill will focus on transparency,” O’Connor said. While the city does retain information on the condition of bridges and their inspection history, the data “is not easily accessible to residents,” he said. In addition to regular reports to council, DOMI would publish information online to answer the kinds of questions “the public has been asking us about over the last couple of weeks since the bridge had collapsed.”

But Burgess worried that listing off the worst assets simply opens the city up to litigation, noting that “we are currently being sued.”

A city solicitor told councilors he would prefer not to comment on pending claims against the city, but lawyers for a couple who were on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it collapsed Jan. 28 notified the city and other agencies that litigation was coming. After a flurry of motions and concerns, council recessed to move into executive session. When members returned, they moved to hold the bill for a legal opinion.

A bill authored by Burgess was also delayed: a measure that would create a task force to ensure infrastructure funds are distributed equitably. Councilor Anthony Coghill said he worried the proposal would duplicate some of the other legislation on the table. Burgess’ bill was also held for another week.