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Fern Hollow Bridge will reopen this month, and then other bridges beckon

Construction crews move the first of 21 concrete beams needed to rebuild Fern Hollow Bridge into place on July 25, 2022.
Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA
Construction crews move the first of 21 concrete beams needed to rebuild the Fern Hollow Bridge into place on July 25, 2022.

PennDOT officials said they expect to reopen Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge by the end of the year, but there’s a caveat: the weather has to cooperate, said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, District 11 executive for the agency.

“We don’t have an exact date yet because we still have some line-striping to do, [a] little bit of clean-up work,” and that’s weather-dependent, she said. But even if the bridge doesn’t open in the next couple of weeks, its return is imminent.

Just 11 months have passed since the span, which connects Squirrel Hill and Regent Square, collapsed on Jan. 28, severing a critical travel route for some 21,000 motorists as well as cyclists, pedestrians, and park users. Emergency declarations and procedures allowed PennDOT and the City of Pittsburgh to expedite the bridge’s replacement. But it was really the federal infrastructure bill that made the rapid reconstruction possible, Moon-Sirianni said.

“We wouldn’t have had the ability to spend $25 million on this bridge because it would have been utilized somewhere else,” she said.

Though the four-lane bridge will reopen soon, it will have just one travel lane open in either direction throughout the winter while the contractor installs light poles and builds a pedestrian crossing near the Frick Park gatehouse. Despite that ongoing work, the roughly 10-foot, shared-use sidewalk for cyclists and pedestrians — on the southern side of the bridge — will be open as well.

Moon-Sirianni said she hopes the bridge will come in under its estimated price tag of $25.3 million, but she can’t say for sure: Rehabilitation of the park below the bridge has not begun, and plans for the pedestrian crossing are not yet final.

The City of Pittsburgh also has work to do to reconnect the bridge to the street grid.

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Local officials initially resisted calls to see the reconstruction of Fern Hollow Bridge as an opportunity to redesign the area for non-car travelers. There were bike lanes on Forbes Avenue leading up to the bridge’s sidewalk, but they were often full of debris and separated from fast-moving traffic by only small plastic poles. Bike Pittsburgh and other groups urged the city to “look at how the street network can be improved for bicyclists and pedestrians along the entire Forbes Ave[nue] corridor from Squirrel Hill to Regent Square,” said Scott Bricker, who leads Bike Pittsburgh.

“The city has answered those calls with a very thoughtful design that has addressed most of our concerns,” he said.

Those changes are described on the project page at the city’s Engage PGH site: The intersection where westbound Beechwood Boulevard runs into Forbes Avenue — often referred to as a “slip ramp”; it’s quite small, and a sharp turn — will no longer be open to cars. From there, concrete barriers will protect cyclists as they enter the two-way cycle track that heads east to the bridge. In addition, South Dallas Avenue will become a one-way street between Forbes Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard that allows traffic to travel only south, among other reconfigurations.

With Fern Hollow slated to reopen, PennDOT will soon turn to another important project. (Moon-Sirianni noted that at PennDOT, they “fix a lot of important bridges”). The agency has begun the final design process to replace the Commercial Street Bridge, which carries the Parkway East/Interstate 376 into and out of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

Completed in 1951, the Commercial Street Bridge is 860 feet long and 95 feet high, and carries 100,000 vehicles every day. But unless people drive under the Commercial Street Bridge — on Commercial Street, which runs northwest from Swissvale into Squirrel Hill — most don’t even know it’s there, Moon-Sirianni said.

It’s a critical bridge for the region, and while safe, it’s limiting, she said.

In 1951, “the travel loads weren't what they are today. So right now, the Commercial Street Bridge can't even handle some of our larger permit loads, which is not what you want for an interstate,” she said, noting that the search and rescue crane needed at Fern Hollow Bridge couldn’t come in over the Commercial Street Bridge.

Though the project will use accelerated bridge construction techniques, it will still take three construction seasons to build. Unlike the Fern Hollow Bridge, where there was no traffic to work around, “there is no easy detour of the Parkway East,” Moon-Sirianni said. “You can’t take the Parkway East out of service for three years while you build this bridge.”

Instead, the parkway will close for roughly three weeks during the course of the project. PennDOT will build an entirely new bridge next to the existing one and then slide it into place to keep closures to a minimum. Fern Hollow will provide an important detour point for all of that traffic.

Commercial Street and most of Frick Park will also remain open during the vast majority of the project, Moon-Sirianni said. While land under and near the new bridge will be closed, Nine Mile Run Trail will remain open. PennDOT will shift both the street and the trail, which crosses over Commercial Street below the bridge, roughly two feet to the south. A tunnel will be built over the trail to protect people.

PennDOT expects to begin looking for a contractor in early 2024.

Corrected: December 16, 2022 at 6:30 AM EST
This story was updated to correct when PennDOT will send the Commercial Street Bridge project out to bid. It will be early 2024, not early 2023.