Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh’s city steps to get $7 million upgrade

The Frazier Street steps are receiving a $1.4 million upgrade with funds from the American Rescue Plan. The steps connect the busy Bates Street to a residential area in South Oakland.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The Frazier Street steps are receiving a $1.4 million upgrade with funds from the American Rescue Plan. The steps connect the busy Bates Street to a residential area in South Oakland.

The City of Pittsburgh received $7 million in federal money to repair and replace city steps as part of a trillion dollar spending bill passed by Congress last year.

This is the largest infusion of funds to repair its city steps in recent memory. But because there is an urgent need for repairs all across the city, it will only help a small fraction of the steps that need it.

“It's just a drop in the bucket,” said Emily Bourne, a spokesperson for the city of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure [DOMI]. “But it's a large drop.

Although the city has a short list of steps that could be improved with this funding, it is not yet ready to divulge which steps those are, according to Eric Setzler, the chief engineer for DOMI. “I'm a little hesitant to name any specific ones and get anybody excited just to turn around and I have to say, ‘No, it doesn't actually fit within the budget.’”

Repairing a single set of steps costs between $500,000 and $1.5 million, he said, so the number of steps that get repaired will depend in part on which steps are chosen. The city will include several factors in their decision, including: how much use the stairs get, how close they are to bus stops or schools, and how far it would take someone to make the same trip if the steps were closed.

“That's a balancing act, looking at the highest priority steps and then a little bit of art and science in there about which one to pick to try to get the most bang for our buck,” he said.

Joseph Smith, of Millvale, walks up Rialto Street to work because he didn't want to have to take a second bus. He had to wait a few hours to leave for painting job in Troy Hill because his power was out and he didn't want to leave his dogs in the cold.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Joseph Smith, of Millvale, pauses on his walk up Rialto Street on a freezing cold day in December. The Rialto steps received a total revamp in 2021 and 2022 that coincided with a new bridge at the top.

After the steps projects are chosen it will take two to three years before they see any construction, Setzler said. The city has to work through a gantlet of PennDOT agreements, federal regulations, proposed designs from engineering firms and then ultimately bidding the projects out for construction.

There are three steps projects that are already funded with COVID-relief funding, Selter said: the Frazier Street steps in Oakland, the steps that connect Downing Street to Herron Avenue in Polish Hill and the steps that connect McCandless Street to Stanton Avenue in Lawrenceville.

“We can't fix every set of steps now or probably ever, to be quite honest, because the city has changed,” Setzler said. “So we really have to look at picking the highest priority ones as far as where they go, what they connect to, and investing in those first.”

How many steps will $7 million get you?

The $7 million award was the largest federal earmark in western Pennsylvania and the second biggest in the state, out of 92 total projects in Pennsylvania that received funding this year.

While bridges and large road projects have dedicated state and federal funding streams, work on city steps does not. For a bridge replacement, for example, the city only has to pay 5% of the total cost. But replacing city steps falls entirely on the city’s budget.

And in recent years the city hasn’t prioritized it. Before the pandemic the city was allocating less than $1 million per year to the city steps in its capital budgets. Over the last two years the city allocated nearly $4 million dollars of COVID-relief funds in its capital budgets to repair and replace a handful of city steps.

There’s currently a logjam of city steps that need to be repaired. One of the reasons is that many were built in the 1940s, according to Matthew Jacob, who helped the city update its inventory. Those steps had a roughly 70-year life span, Jacob said, so there are steps all across the city that are beginning to need serious attention all at the same time.

The city’s population has also declined by more than half since the steps were constructed, so many of the stairways don’t receive as much use as they used to. And many of the factory jobs that people used to use steps to walk to no longer exist. So there are a lot of steps that are in poor shape, unfortunately, but there's also a lot of steps that were built for a time that has passed right and don't really serve a practical or functional purpose anymore,” Jacob said.

In 2018, the city came up with criteria for how to prioritize steps based in part on public input and created an online map that lists the vast majority of the city’s steps and how urgently repairs are needed. One problem is that the map is already a little out of date. So, some steps that look like they need repairs have already been repaired. Or in other cases, the transportation situation has recently changed — such as the loss of a recent pedestrian overpass in Polish Hill.

Jacob said, while the map is a good starting place to see which steps need help, they also require local expertise and a “sanity check.” For example, a staircase in Troy Hill is ranked highly in part because it leads right up to a charter school. But the steps lead from a bike path along Highway 28 and don’t actually make it easier for any kids to get to school.

DOMI is also trying to prioritize equity in its decisions. So, Setzler said, there are several staff members who will look at how the new steps projects are distributed across the city.

The city is trying to improve upon the step designs used in the past, so that the steps it does build last longer. For example, in the past the railings were always built directly into the steps. But this made it easier for water to intrude, which would make the whole step deteriorate, Jacob said. In contrast, one of the most recently built set of steps in the Deutschtown neighborhood uses bolts to fasten the hand railing into the side of the steps. That will allow the city to make fixes to the railing in the future without having to redo the steps.

The new federal funding for steps projects was originally requested but not selected last year as part of$9 billion federal earmark projects, the first earmark projects to be funded in more than a decade. The 2023 federal spending bill included an additional $15 billion in earmarks and the steps made the cut this time. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle and Sen. Bob Casey advocated for the special funding for the projects.

Steps beyond steps

There are some steps that have aesthetic value and historic value but may not make sense for the city to fund, said Laura Zurowski, who has been on a project to walk and document every city steps in the city for more than six years. Zurowski and Jacob are working on a new book about Pittsburgh’s city steps that is scheduled to be published next year. For example, she said, the Rising Main steps that lead to the Fineview neighborhood are the longest and one of the most impressive set of steps in the city — but they no longer connect workers to the soap factory they used to be nearby or the neighborhood below that was replaced by a highway.

“Maybe we access outside philanthropy to say OK, we cannot reasonably expect the city to put money into fixing something that is a bit of…like a neighborhood novelty, right?” she said. “It has historical significance. But when we were talking about finite resources, it doesn't make sense to put money there, but there might be someone outside the city who is thinking, yes, I would like to donate money because I want to restore this for a philanthropic way.”

Zurowski said that, while it may seem daunting given the resource limitations, residents should continue to complain to city leaders and advocate for their city steps. She said the reason the steps were built in the first place was because of such advocacy.

It is not guaranteed that if you complain to your council person that your flight of stairs or your sidewalk or your street is going to get repaired,” she said. “But if you don't complain and if you aren't persistent with advocacy, you can be sure that it's not going to.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.