Pittsburgh has seen its infrastructure collapse, catch fire, cave in and break in recent years, culminating on Friday with the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had rated the condition of the Forbes Avenue bridge in Frick Park “poor” prior to the collapse, which injured 10 people. But it’s not the only bridge to receive such a rating: 175 of Allegheny County’s 1,580 bridges are also in poor condition, according to PennDOT.
As local officials continue to highlight the importance of investing in infrastructure in the aftermath of Friday’s bridge collapse, here are five recent examples of infrastructure failures and damages in Allegheny County.
Route 30 collapse
A section of Route 30, located in East Pittsburgh, collapsed early in the morning on April 7, 2018, falling about 40 feet after a wall above the route broke and caused a landslide. Debris and mud caused gas leaks, severed power lines and damaged the Electric Avenue Apartments, a senior living center, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
A family home, a business in North Braddock and four other apartment buildings were evacuated following the landslide, TribLIVE.com reported. Dozens of residents were displaced in total, but no one was injured.
A PennDOT official told WESA in 2018 that excessive rainfall was believed to have caused the collapse. While the rest of the highway sits above solid rock, the portion that collapsed was built over a landfill estimated to be from the 1930s.
Movement under Route 30 several days before the collapse had prompted outside experts and PennDOT to inspect the highway, and the route was closed the day before due to buckling, according to the Post-Gazette. The officials discovered the landslide upon further inspection and began ordering evacuations before the collapse.
“It was sinking before, but we never imagined the magnitude that it was a landslide,” the PennDOT official told TribLIVE.com. “The wall was holding up the whole entire hillside, and when the pressure got too strong the wall broke.”
PennDOT data around the time of the collapse showed that about 21,000 vehicles used the collapsed section daily, according to TribLIVE.com. Route 30 opened to traffic in June 2018 following repairs that included adding a retaining wall, bolstering the hillside that collapsed and putting in a replacement drainage system, according to WESA.
Liberty Bridge fire
A construction fire nearly destroyed the Liberty Bridge in September 2016. The fire burned at more than 1,200 degrees and took firefighters about 30 minutes to extinguish.
No one was injured in the fire, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation to review the bridge’s conditions and ensure worker safety.
The fire ignited from sparks caused by cutting steel and set a construction tarp and plastic piping ablaze. The fire damaged a 30-foot steel chord on pier 7, which a PennDOT official said held the greatest load and was the bridge’s most sensitive spot, the Post-Gazette reported. While the chord was built to tolerate 2.4 million pounds of pressure, after the fire, the official estimated it could only withstand 2 million pounds.
Repairs cost more than $5 million and forced the bridge to close for about a month, WESA reported. The bridge, which was 88 years old at the time of the fire, was under reconstruction as part of an $80 million project by contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. The contractor and its insurer paid for the repairs, and the project was completed in September 2018.
“We basically restored the bridge to its original condition, and the bridge had to be closed while that was going on because it was a very structurally precarious situation,” PennDOT District 11 Assistant Executive Jason Zang told WESA.
Freight train derails near Station Square
A freight train moving westbound on Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in August 2018 several hundred feet away from Station Square. No one was injured when seven of the train’s rail cars went off the tracks, and passengers at the nearby station were evacuated.
Along with shutting down light-rail service at the station, the Port Authority of Allegheny County closed the Smithfield Street Bridge and a portion of Carson Street due to the derailment. The railroad tracks were closed for four days, and light-rail operations faced disruptions for almost three weeks, according to the Post-Gazette.
“We came very close to having a tragedy, as close as it was to the T station,” then-Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich told the paper. “We are very fortunate … The cars could have potentially come down onto a T car or onto Carson Street.”
A broken track caused the train to derail, Norfolk Southern Railway said. The derailment caused $773,275 in equipment damage and $80,000 of damage to the track, totals that exclude the damage to Port Authority facilities, according to the Post-Gazette.
An official with Norfolk Southern Railway told the paper that they didn’t know when the break occurred, but said breaks happen occasionally and that the railroad reviews conditions on the tracks twice a week.
The derailment forced the Port Authority to reconstruct a retaining wall, replace about 1,600 feet of track and install 4,000 feet of overhead electrical lines and supporting infrastructure, among other repairs.
Greenfield Bridge implosion and closure
The old Greenfield Bridge was imploded in 2015 nearly a century after it opened in 1922. Concrete falling from the bridge and onto the below highway had caused problems for nearly two decades at that point, leading the city to build another bridge and install nets to protect cars.
The new bridge opened in October 2017, but it closed for a month in September 2020 to allow for repairs to a concrete deck, according to the Post-Gazette. Before the reopening, the city found a material defect and “some voids” in the deck, sparking concerns that water would seep under the surface.
“This is something that was not acceptable for the specifications,” a city engineer told the Post-Gazette. “This is a fairly large issue. It is fairly unusual. That’s why we’re making sure it gets taken care of.”
The deck was supposed to last for at least 50 years.
The sinkhole bus
An 18-foot-deep sinkhole opened in downtown Pittsburgh in October 2019 and swallowed up a stopped Port Authority bus. No injuries were involved.
The sinkhole was repaired about a year later, after the pandemic delayed efforts to fix the underground damage of six facilities, according to the Post-Gazette. Repair work included filling the hole, installing sidewalks and fixing telecommunications conduits, TribLIVE.com reported.
PWSA and the city paid a combined $344,000 in public costs, but the cost of the six involved utilities’ work is unclear.
Emma Folts is a PublicSource reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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