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Pittsburgh bridge study released, sets maintenance and repair priorities

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey holds a copy of the city's bridge report during a ribbon-cutting at the Fern Hollow Bridge on Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Pittsburgh officials released the findings of a $1.5 million study Wednesday about the state of 147 bridges owned by the city. The report will inform the work of the city’s new bridge asset management division set to launch next year.

“It’s been an eye opener,” said Mayor Ed Gainey of the report, whose completion he announced at a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the reopening of the Fern Hollow Bridge. “I’m glad we found out things that we didn’t know… But more importantly, I’m glad that we have a plan to go forward.”

The long-awaited study, led by engineering firm WSP Global, compiled data about the city’s 100 vehicular bridges and 47 pedestrian spans. (It did not cover the dozens of bridges owned by the state or county.)

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Of the 145 spans reviewers could find data on, the report concluded “there are no vehicular bridges with a structural concern that would require a new closure.”

The report does, however, recommend closing two spans to vehicles but allowing them to remain open to pedestrians. The recommendations would block vehicles from Fritz Street at Brosville Street near Allentown to vehicles until further evaluation is completed. The report also urges adding closure signs to the Fine Way bridge near Mordale Street in Brookline, which has collapsed.

WSP also suggests closing several sidewalks and pedestrian bridges. It recommends three pedestrian bridges for demolition, including: the Broome Street pedestrian bridge in New Homestead, the Wilksboro Avenue pedestrian bridge (which has already been closed), and the Lowe Street pedestrian bridge. Engineers had also recommended closing the Finland Street Pedestrian Bridge in Polish Hill: The span was demolished after a crane struck it in October, before the study was completed.

The report includes condition rankings determined by Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation for 116 city bridges. (Most of the unrated spans are pedestrian-only bridges not rated by the department.) Conditions of those 116 bridges fall into five categories:

  • Very Good: 4
  • Good: 12
  • Satisfactory: 14
  • Fair: 54
  • Poor: 32

The report depicts a city trying to address urgent maintenance recommendations – while still uncovering the full picture of its infrastructure needs and how to manage them. Engineers found that some reports were too old to be useful, or were missing necessary data.

In all, inspectors determined that there were 27 bridges with conditions that needed to be addressed within one week. Of those, 14 bridges had “sign-related” issues, according to Louis Ruzzi, WSP’s director and structural engineer. Many of those could be fixed by adding a weight limit sign or clearing shrubbery from where a sign already exists. Another 13 immediate priority bridges had structural issues.

Ruzzi said the city has addressed many of the top-priority bridges. As of early December, only three bridges with structural issues remained and five with signage issues remained.

The report assigned those bridges to the “Priority 0” category. The next priority level, “Priority 1,” includes bridges with issues that should be corrected in the next six months. There were 69 bridges in this category. Four had signage issues and 65 had structural issues. Ruzzi said the city already addressed six of the spans.

Some of the work needed to bring the bridge into a less immediate category could be done quickly, Ruzzi said. “It could be knocking down concrete, it could be closing a sidewalk until repairs could be made,” he explained.

The report also warns that problems on over 50 bridges with the third-highest ranking, “Priority 2,” could become more serious if not addressed in the next two years. And it suggests tackling quick fixes to make “Priority 0” bridges into “Priority 1” bridges, with stopgap measures that would allow for more time for repairs.

“Examples of this mitigation include: placing guide rail across the barrier opening at the Bloomfield Bridge and adding steel plates to cover holes in sidewalks,” WSP writes in a two-page summary of the report.

The report also recommends that 8 vehicular and 10 pedestrian bridges be further inspected to fill in details that are currently missing in available data.

That the report did not call for vehicular bridge closures was a relief for Gainey, who noted on Wednesday that he was three weeks into his administration when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed. But he stressed his administration will continue to evaluate its bridge priorities as new information becomes available.

One action the city is set to take involves hiring a bridge asset manager under the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure next year. And Gainey’s press secretary, Maria Montaño, noted the administration has already begun implementing some of the recommendations before the report was completed.

“We didn't wait for the report,” Montaño said. “There are a variety of things that we've already begun work on to address the most urgent, critical needs right away.”

Gainey said the city is still evaluating the report and prioritizing its recommendations. He pledged to go after “low-hanging fruit” – projects that can address immediate needs first. But the city will also develop a longer-term strategy.

“We'll prioritize that, too,” he said. “But let us get some of the ones we can get right now to stabilize these bridges.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.