Update (12/22/22): Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration released on Wednesday a long-awaited report on the city’s bridges, 11 months after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed and on the same day the ribbon was cut on its replacement. The report, which catalogues defects and maintenance needs for the city’s 150-plus bridges, came at a steep cost. The city agreed to pay the engineering firm WSP USA $1.5 million to revamp the city’s bridge maintenance operations, including this report and recommendations on how to build an in-house bridge management team. 

WSP engineers reviewed state inspection reports and photographs of each bridge and identified 27 critical issues, meant to be addressed within one week, and 69 high priority issues, which they say should be resolved within six months. The city wrote in response to the report that it had reduced these numbers to eight outstanding critical issues and 63 high priority ones. 

The city already ratified its 2023 capital budget, which includes little money for immediate construction work on bridges. Gainey told WESA on Wednesday that the city is still weighing how to implement the report’s recommendations.

Reported 12/5/22: Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s proposed 2023 capital budget shows a hard truth: The drive to bring the city’s many bridges into good repair is going to be a long slog, with few results in the near term. 

The plan, which outlines spending for the next five years and is pending City Council’s approval, details around $123 million for 13 bridges and general bridge upkeep over the period from 2023 to 2027. But the plan doesn’t start construction on any of those projects in 2023, and it projects seven to finish in 2026 or later.  (It includes $3.75 million for construction next year of a new Davis Avenue Bridge in Brighton Heights for pedestrians and bikes.)

“Major infrastructure projects take time to do right,” said Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak. “We can be moving as quickly as possible and it could still take a number of years.”

After the city-owned Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in January just a month into his term as Pittsburgh’s leader, Gainey pledged to invest in the city’s approximately 150 bridges and bring them up to par. That would be no small task, with dozens in disrepair and funding limited. 

During the 10 months since the collapse, the city has conducted emergency repairs on a few structures and signed a contract with an engineering firm to prepare a comprehensive plan for bridge maintenance. A replacement for the Fern Hollow Bridge is nearing completion in a process sped by immediate federal funding and an emergency declaration that cleared red tape. But the budget Gainey is proposing for 2023 illustrates the challenges facing the city as it tries to fortify the structures that connect its 90 neighborhoods. 

Bridge progress delayed

Each year’s capital budget includes plans for the following five years. In several cases, the Gainey administration’s proposed budget takes bridge spending that had been planned for 2023 in the previous administration’s budget and moves it back to 2025 or 2026.  

The budget passed last year at the end of Mayor Bill Peduto’s tenure planned major spending in 2023 on a handful of major bridges, including the Charles Anderson Bridge, the Swindell Bridge and the South Negley Avenue bridge. All of those projects are delayed to 2024 or 2025 in the new proposal.

Pawlak declined to comment on the projections offered by the former administration last year, but said in creating the 2023 proposal, his team based its schedule on a “reasonable” timeline. 

“We shift construction funds into the year we legitimately expect work to be done,” he said. For those major bridge projects, pre-construction steps like design and public consultation are still pending. Inflation and supply chain issues are not helping matters, Pawlak said.

The Frazier Street Bridge as it stands above the valley neighborhood of Four Mile Run on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Also known as Junction Hollow Bridge and Four Mile Run Bridge, it was built in 1951 and connects I-376, US-22, and US-30. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
The Frazier Street Bridge as it stands above the valley neighborhood of Four Mile Run on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Also known as Junction Hollow Bridge and Four Mile Run Bridge, it was built in 1951 and connects I-376, US-22, and US-30. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

For 2023, the budget proposal allocated $1.3 million for specific bridge projects, but that money covers design and preparation work, not construction. There is also about $7 million in general bridge-related funds, with no specific projects named, which Pawlak said will be used for urgent repairs and for doing preliminary work to gain outside funding for major projects later.

In some ways, Gainey’s proposal expands on the previous administration’s plan, reflecting a year of focus on infrastructure: The proposal includes investments in six bridges that were not included in previous budgets. But none of those projects are slated to see see money spent on construction until 2023. Pawlak said the Gainey administration has created a new unit for bridge maintenance that will work to ensure safety as work slowly progresses.

Pittsburgh’s 24 ‘poor’ bridges

The city owns 24 bridges that state-licensed inspectors say are in poor condition — the same rating given to the Fern Hollow Bridge a few months before it crumbled into a ravine. 

A poor rating does not mean inspectors think the bridge is dangerous, but that it needs rehabilitation to avoid further problems. State policy is to close any bridge thought to be in danger of collapse. One such bridge is on Timberland Avenue in the South Hills, closed to traffic because inspectors gave a rating of ‘imminent failure.’

Gainey’s proposal includes plans for 12 of the 24. The other 12 are not mentioned, and some of those involve well-used arteries like the Boulevard of the Allies, Centre Avenue and PJ McArdle Roadway. 

The city agreed to pay $1.5 million to global design firm WSP USA over the summer, asking the company to create a comprehensive plan for the city to maintain its bridges. In announcing the initiative in the spring, the administration said they would receive a report by October and use it to craft its capital budget proposal.

In an interview last week, Pawlak said the city has received a draft report and it was not ready in time for it to impact the 2023 budget proposal, but it could influence how discretionary funds are used during 2023. The administration has said the report will eventually be made public. 

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...