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

Innovation for infrastructure funding is much needed, says past president of local engineers group

Workers in a basket suspended by a crane help with the recovery process on Monday Jan. 31, 2022 of the bus and other vehicles that were on a bridge when it collapsed Friday, in Pittsburgh's East End.
Gene J. Puskar
Workers in a basket suspended by a crane help with the recovery process on Monday Jan. 31, 2022 of the bus and other vehicles that were on a bridge when it collapsed Friday, in Pittsburgh's East End.

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Jonathan Shimko, past president of the local American Society of Civil Engineers, shares his insight into the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge; tax season is upon us and we turn to an expert in tax law about the state of the Internal Revenue Service; and we speak to North Hills middle school teacher Joe Welch about being a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year award.

Former local American Society of Civil Engineers president says bridge collapse points to the need for ongoing, local infrastructure investment
(0:00 - 6:51)

According to the Pennsylvania State Council of the American Society of Civil Engineers nearly 1 in 5 bridges in Pennsylvania was found to be in poor condition in their last full report, published in 2018.

The Fern Hollow Bridge, which carried Forbes Avenue over Frick Park and collapsed Friday, was inspected last September. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the bridge showed signs of deterioration, but wasn’t bad enough to require its closure.

“There are practices in place to inspect bridges and our other infrastructure,” says Jonathan Shimko, the past president of the Pittsburgh Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “There’s no need to panic or fear, our infrastructure is not on the verge of failure, but this only highlights the need to pay attention to our infrastructure, in particular, the infrastructure that is often out of sight and out of mind until an event like this occurs.”

Shimko says bridges are typically inspected every two years, or more frequently if needed, at which point the following elements are examined: The road deck, which is the surface people drive, bike, and walk on; the superstructure, meaning the steel and concrete that hold the bridge up; and the substructure which are the ground-level or below-ground level components.

He adds that infrastructure was bolstered by the state’s Act 89 funding, first passed in 2013. However, Shimko says only $500 million of the original $1.3 billion went to roads and bridges, and approximately $800 million funded state police in Pennsylvania.

“We really need to make sure our legislation is drafted properly to allocate funding to infrastructure that is much needed, … and we need to find innovative ways for funding,” says Shimko.

He notes that the increasing use of electric vehicles means less paid in gas and fuel taxes. In addition, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is sending $1.6 billion to the state. While Shinko says more is ultimately needed, he acknowledges that without it, PennDOT likely would have struggled to commit $23.5 million to rebuilding the Fern Hollow Bridge.

The IRS is urging people to file their taxes early and online to avoid delays
(7:00 - 13:22)

It’s not just winter: it’s tax season. Employers have sent out their W-2s, and the federal and state treasury departments are pleading with taxpayers to file electronically to avoid the long delays last year.

In a conversation on NPR’s Morning Edition, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo predicted a “frustrating tax season.”

“What that means for taxpayers is that they need to make sure that they file online, that they take steps to make sure that their returns are prepared, because unfortunately due to the pandemic and chronic underfunding of the IRS, the IRS has fewer people to answer their phone calls and to deal with taxpayer issues,” said Adeyamo.

Philip Hackney, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in tax law, says the frustration has been a long time coming.

“The IRS today, has the same staffing it had … in 1970,” says Hackney, who spent five years at the Office of the Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, drafting IRS regulations. “There were about 90,000 employees when I was working in 2006 to 2011, and today the numbers I saw, like a year ago, were around 75,000 employees.”

According to the National Taxpayer Advocate, the IRS' internal watchdog, the IRS had a backlog of 35 million returns in 2021 that required manual processing. Hackney says this means newly filed returns might not be processed for some period of time, and expected refunds may take more time to arrive. If there’s an error, that can further slow the process.

This past year, Americans got a stimulus payment, and parents got the Child Tax credit. Hackney says while these payments were a boon to some, filers should be aware they may have to give some of the money back, depending on one’s income and situation.

“Essentially you were getting money before you filed your return, and it depends on income you earned in that year, but the IRS used say, your 2019 return for the 2020 payments, and your 2020 return to determine your 2021 payments,” explains Hackney. “This means it's possible that you’ve got some money coming to you when you file your 2021 return, but it also could mean you have to give some of it back, because you got too much.”

Hackney is also urging anyone who did not receive these payments to file a tax return, even if they don’t have a filing obligation.

The deadline to file taxes this year is April 18.

A North Hills history teacher is a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year award
(13:24 - 22:30)

A local teacher is one of four finalists being considered for the National Teacher of the Year award. Joe Welch teaches history at North Hills Middle School, and if he’s selected, Joe will be the first teacher from Pennsylvania to receive this honor.

Welch has been a teacher in the district for 15 years, after watching his father, a longtime elementary school teacher and basketball coach, also with North Hills, get recognized on the street by former students and parents. Welch says that experience made it clear the impact teachers have on students’ lives beyond their time in his classroom.

When it comes to engaging students, Welch says he often draws on the Tony-award winning musical, “Hamilton.”

“There’s a small obscure line in that musical, Hamilton, and that goes, ‘When you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game,’ and really that’s my philosophy of teaching history,” says Welch. “I want to give them the opportunity to connect to their emotions of people that lived before them, but also to take that knowledge that they’re gaining and apply it, show us how it’s useful, because it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do with what you know.”

Welch encourages students to create stop-motion animations with primary source documents from Jamestown, and to write break-up songs based on the relationship between British colonists and parliament.

“I think so much of that, allowing students to take ownership and create something along the way, allows them to put their own voice in it, and to remind them that history is more than just Abraham Lincoln and George Washington,” says Welch. “It’s the stories of individuals that perhaps they haven’t heard about. It's the stories in their community.”

Welch says being recognized for his work as a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year award is an opportunity to speak to what he considers the “most pivotal time in education in at least a generation.”

“I think that there is great responsibility and that’s what I’m really looking forward to, to move that conversation to, ‘what do we want in our education system in the future?’”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Recent Episodes Of The Confluence