The Fern Hollow Bridge was not unique among Allegheny County bridges, at least not on paper. Before it collapsed into Frick Park early Friday morning, it was rated “poor” by PennDOT inspectors, the same rating the state agency has given to 174 other bridges in the county.
“Poor” isn’t the worst rating PennDOT can give a bridge. Inspectors rate bridge components, and the entire structures, on a scale of 0 to 9. Ratings range from excellent (9) to imminent failure (1) and failed (0), with poor (4) near the middle.
Bridges rated “poor” are not considered to be in immediate danger of collapse, University of Pittsburgh engineering professor Kent Harries told PublicSource. But they do show signs of deterioration, meaning maintenance is needed to prevent further damage and potential for later calamity.
Bridges are inspected by the state every two years, and some in worse condition are inspected annually, so authorities can close bridges that are in imminent danger before they fail. The Fern Hollow Bridge was inspected annually, and as recently as September 2021, but it was never ordered to be closed. The public won’t know why it failed until a federal investigation is complete — a process that could take more than a year.
PublicSource identified 175 bridges in Allegheny County rated “poor” or worse using PennDOT and federal data. Thirty-two bridges have at least one component rated worse than poor; 10 of those are listed as closed to all traffic and four have load restrictions. (The bridges with components rated worse than poor can be found in the table by searching “rated.”)
Some of the poorly rated bridges are less than 10 feet long and some are more than 1,000. Thirty are in the city of Pittsburgh and the rest are spread among 74 other Allegheny county municipalities. The majority are owned by local governments and the state: 50 are owned by municipalities (including 22 by Pittsburgh), 97 are owned by the state and 22 are owned by the county. The owner is responsible for maintenance, but not inspection.
About the data
All condition statuses, closures and load limitations are according to PennDOT’s online database, viewable here. A PennDOT spokesperson told PublicSource this data includes the most recent inspection reports for each bridge.
PennDOT only provided average traffic data for some bridges. For the others, the data was taken from the National Bridge Inventory, and for some it was several years old and could differ from current usage.
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This story was fact-checked by Katelyn Vue and Emma Folts.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.
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