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Allegheny County's getting another hot metal bridge, and major bike and pedestrian investments

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The historic Carrie Blast Furnaces used to churn out molten iron, which traveled across the bridge by rail to another part of the U.S. Steel Homestead Works. By 2024 the bridge will carry pedestrians and cyclists.

Type “Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge,” into Google Maps and a blue dot appears in the middle of the Monongahela River; directions lead to a spot on the southern shore, with no way to reach the closed span without some intrepid maneuvers.

But that won’t be true for much longer. Allegheny County has committed more than $6 million to restore the bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. Doing so will connect the former industrial site to the region’s major trail, the Great Allegheny Passage.

“The bridge is an amazing historic asset that deserves to be rehabbed and enjoyed,” said Lance Chimka, the county’s economic development director. He added that its location on the site of the historic Carrie Blast Furnaces, part of the former U.S. Steel Homestead Works, will make it “a unique attraction that’s going to draw people into the upper Mon Valley [where they] … maybe haven’t taken the time to explore before.”

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The 178-acre Carrie Blast Furnaces site straddles Swissvale and Rankin boroughs, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, the blast furnaces are the only non-operative ones left in the region.

The “hot metal” moniker stems from the bridge’s role in the steel works’ heyday: After leaving the blast furnaces, molten iron was poured into “torpedo cars” that traveled by rail across the bridge and onto the next step in the steelmaking process.

Chimka said the bridge itself is in “fantastic shape,” and on the Munhall side of the river conveniently ends near the Great Allegheny Passage. However, on the Carrie Furnace side the bridge stands quite a ways off the ground, so the county will have to build some kind of on-ramp. In addition, because the bridge spans a waterway, Chimka said extra care will be needed to remove lead paint and asbestos during rehabilitation.

The bridge and trail connection is expected to open in 2024, said Chimka, who jokingly referred to the span as the “other hot metal bridge.” (Another Hot Metal Bridge, this one about 6 miles downstream, connects Pittsburgh’s Second Avenue to the South Side, and was formerly part of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Works.)

The Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge project is one of eighteen the Allegheny County Trail Development Fund announced last week, a nearly $22 million investment in trails and “active transportation” projects paid for with some of the county’s federal pandemic relief money.

The Trail Development Fund grants also included nearly $5 million to buy a rail line to build a connection between Aspinwall and Pittsburgh, as well as funding to help close gaps in the Erie to Pittsburgh trail. The funding is time-restricted, and so has to be put to work quickly.

“This is the largest injection of trail funding we’ve ever had in the county,” said Kelsey Ripper, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront, which is helping officials approach trail planning and implementation as a comprehensive network.

Trails provide essential transportation, recreation opportunities, and environmental improvements, all of which create an economic benefit to their host communities, said Ripper.

The Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy wrote in their economic impact report that in 2019 alone the GAP generated more than $800,000 in tourism business per mile, said Scott Bricker, who leads Bike Pittsburgh.

“It only makes sense to connect more places to this trail which will pump more dollars into our local economies,” he said. “It's great to see Allegheny County making investments like this."

News of the Carrie Furnace bridge conversion comes as development gets under way on the flat stretch of land between the Rankin Bridge and the furnaces themselves.

The Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County has owned those 55 acres since 2005, and in 2021 partnered with the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, or RIDC, to develop them. The agency hopes to attract tech and film uses for the site, said Tim White, RIDC’s senior vice president of business development and strategy, and expects to break ground on two buildings this spring.

Since sprawling industrial sites “weren’t built for typical human experience,” White said the future trail bridge is critical to “integrate [the site] with the broader community.”

The connection means access to the GAP and the Waterfront business district — and, eventually, “into the adjacent neighborhoods,” he said. “It provides people easier access to jobs, you can take a run, bike.”

Chimka and White talk about the Carrie Blast Furnaces site, and the potential unlocked by the investment in trails, as a kind of geographic and economic linchpin between Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley. The county ultimately plans to create a nine-mile connection between the GAP and the Westmoreland Heritage Trail. Chimka said officials are also studying how to connect Carrie Furnace through Duck Hollow to Hazelwood Green. Foundations, universities, and businesses have poured millions of dollars into that project — also located on a former steel site — and expect that investment will help revitalize the existing Hazelwood neighborhood.

Chimka said public investment at Carrie Blast Furnaces can help people see the value in the Mon Valley, and described the support for trails as “transformational.”

“We think 10, 15 years from now we’re going to look back on this and just be really thankful that we allocated funds to these trail projects,” he said.