When a city councilor asked Kim Lucas, the new director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure [DOMI] what her department needs to succeed, she said the department has “a real core capacity issue.”
“We have three people that are responsible for over 800 sets of public steps, 150 city-owned bridges, 400-plus retaining walls and the landslide mitigation efforts and flooding,” Lucas said.
That thin staffing at DOMI could get in the way of Mayor Ed Gainey’s plans to overhaul how Pittsburgh manages its many bridges. Bridge maintenance jumped to the top of the new mayor’s to-do list after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in January and the public scrutiny that followed.
Gainey announced May 5 that the city will solicit bids for a comprehensive bridge management plan, which he said will mean that the city “will have someone leading a team that will get up every day and think about the safety and integrity of our bridges.”
He said he will task the new coordinator with providing a status report on the condition of all city-owned bridges by October.
This move comes as DOMI, which is responsible for bridges, roads, steps and much more in the city, gets a new permanent director in Lucas. During her confirmation hearing before council in May, she was direct in saying the department is short on people, funding and even software. On top of that, an independent report conducted in late 2021 warned that morale issues and overwork could hamper DOMI.
Lucas clarified in an interview with PublicSource that there are more than three employees in the structures division, but there are three people “responsible for major capital projects and the asset management work of the department.”
Gainey spokesperson Maria Montaño said in an email that the department’s staffing and Lucas’ calls for more capacity are part of the reason for the new bridge management program, which will give the city “a clear picture” of what it needs to do for each bridge.
Gainey’s plan calls for a bridge management consultant to present the city with an expansive plan for inspecting, maintaining and investing in the city’s 150 bridges. In her council testimony and her interview with PublicSource, Lucas indicated that the department could use more staff to carry out that plan once it’s ready.
“You have to have staff to spend money,” she said. “We are very creative and our staff is punching above their weight. We have incredible, dedicated, passionate, skilled staff. And we could do more with more.”
DOMI is the city’s newest department, created in 2017. The 2022 budget includes funding for 102 full-time DOMI employees, though many are involved in traffic, paving and other tasks that aren’t bridge-specific.
Lucas told council that purchasing software for infrastructure management could alleviate some of the issues created by low staffing by helping the department be more strategic in its maintenance decisions.
“A $10,000 maintenance could prevent a $10 million project if you do it at the right time,” Lucas said. “The software exists, the human beings within the city budget do not exist. The city once had bridge maintenance folks, they had bridge inspectors decades ago … We do not employ those directly today” but rather rely on contractors.
Lucas said she and her staff “absolutely will be conveying our needs” to the mayor’s office during the upcoming 2023 budget process, but tempered her expectations with a nod to the city’s financial reality during the pandemic.
“We’re going to make sure we’re not only going to get all those needs on paper, but we’re going to prioritize them because we know it’s not possible to necessarily fill all of those overnight,” she said.
Morale and turnover
In late 2021, nonprofit foundations commissioned a comprehensive report into city departments to assess the health of the administration as it prepared to turn over to a new mayor. The resulting 41-page report on DOMI warns of an overworked staff.
“Morale is not great,” the report reads. “The department has lost staff recently, and there are increasing high-caliber projects without enough staff to meet the demand. Root causes are burnout, high workload demand and a lack of competitive pay.”
The report also warns of looming retirements. “The factors laid out show that DOMI could show a huge transition in the next year.”
Public payroll records show eight employees left the department in the second half of 2021, along with seven others in the first three months of 2022. Nine employees were hired during that nine-month period, bringing the total to 90. Of those, 31 had been employed for at least 10 years.
“We have a staff that is doing exceptionally well,” Lucas said. “The reality is we have a lot of infrastructure.”
Montaño said of the morale concerns raised by the report, “I think this is true for just about every place of work,” adding that the new administration has been meeting with employees to determine how to “provide the best support possible for our workforce.”
Gainey said of the concerns raised by the foundation report, “I don’t want to talk about what DOMI used to be,” and that he did not want to “point fingers.”
To a follow-up question about the present-day status of the department, Gainey said, “I think that we’re getting back to the staffing it needs … We are working on it, and we’re doing it and we’re doing everything necessary to ensure that each one of these bridges is safe.”
Holding the purse strings
DOMI is responsible for repairing and replacing Pittsburgh’s bridges, but it carries out that charge in concert with engineering inspectors it contracts and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which approves all large engineering projects in the region that receive federal funding.
Practically every major bridge project involves federal dollars, so the commission is heavily involved in Pittsburgh bridge upkeep. But it typically relies on DOMI’s requests to formulate its spending plan for the city.
The proposed bridge management team would identify maintenance, preservation and rehabilitation needs and “recommend timeframes for each type of activity, with an eye towards investing the city’s resources wisely,” according to the request for proposals posted by the city.
Lucas said the impending contract is not an indication that bridge strategy was neglected by the department, but that they aim to streamline it further.
“All of these elements are being addressed in various ways and by different people, but having someone who can dedicate their focus to the strategic planning of it is something that’s not uncommon.”
Montaño said it is yet to be determined if the bridge management program will conclude with the comprehensive report delivered in the fall or if a bridge-focused position would become permanent.
City Councilman Corey O’Connor, who pushed to create an infrastructure management commission after the Fern Hollow collapse, said the incoming bridge management consultant could improve the city’s responsiveness to the inspections it conducts.
“Sometimes somebody’s got to say, ‘Hey, the engineering report says this. Here’s the most conservative solution we have to save people’s lives,’” O’Connor said. “This individual needs to have that ability to make that decision.”
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.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward. However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us. Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.
We don't have paywalls — but your support helps us bridge crucial information gaps.
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.