Pittsburgh is finalizing a $1.5 million contract with a global design firm to assess the state of its many bridges and overhaul the city’s systems for maintaining them. The contract is a major milestone in Mayor Ed Gainey’s mission to improve the condition of dozens of deteriorating structures that have suffered from a lack of upkeep for decades. 

The contract, with the firm WSP USA, is coming together half a year after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Frick Park, severing Forbes Avenue and jolting the administration into action on infrastructure less than a month after Gainey took office.  

The deal with WSP, which will last two years and draw funds from the city’s American Rescue Plan allocation, won’t directly result in any construction or repairs. Gainey said in May that the city is asking the firm to deliver a comprehensive assessment on the condition and maintenance needs of 150 city-owned bridges by October. 

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak said WSP will also help the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure become more efficient and strategic in maintaining bridges and finding state and federal funding, allowing it to address the “largest number of bridges as quickly as possible” and implement “a modern, 21st century asset management plan.”

Pawlak said the report expected in October will help the administration set priorities for the 2023 budgets, which the mayor must present to City Council in early November. Prioritization will be key: The city is responsible for more than 100 bridges. Most are rated “fair” by state-licensed inspectors but 20 are rated “poor” — the same rating that was given to the Fern Hollow Bridge months before it fell.

The city is hoping WSP helps it become faster at getting projects “from identified to planned and designed to under construction and then completed,” Pawlak said. Delays can cause simpler maintenance needs to decay into much more complex and expensive capital projects, sometimes requiring the total overhaul of a bridge or a replacement.

City Controller Michael Lamb, who has been the citywide elected auditor since 2008, said Pittsburgh has never ventured to create a strategic plan for bridges, and doing it now is worthwhile.

“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of rating the condition of our bridges and then mapping out how that repair schedule should look long term,” Lamb said. “I think having a basic plan for your bridge infrastructure is something that we should have.”

Lamb did not specifically endorse the chosen firm or the $1.5 million price tag, and said he suspected there were other bids for less money. The other bids are not yet public. Three other firms, including one based in Pittsburgh, submitted bids, according to the city’s procurement website.

Pawlak suggested that the city’s infrastructure management was a “bare bones operation” while the city was struggling financially and under state oversight in the 2000s and 2010s. Cutbacks created a backlog of maintenance and reconstruction needs that the current and previous administrations have struggled to catch up on.

“This administration’s objective is, now that we’re out of financial oversight, to put in place the structures that most effectively manage that for the long term,” said Pawlak, who is also the director of the Office of Management and Budget. “The city was, for understandable reasons, for a long time stretching scarce dollars very thinly. We still have to be cognizant of that but we are in a better financial position to be in a more forward thinking and proactive place and we want to take advantage of that opportunity.”

‘A much more positive position’

Despite the revenue crunch brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a couple positive signs for greater infrastructure funding in the near future. One is the historically large infrastructure spending plan that President Joe Biden and Congress approved last summer, which is expected to provide an unprecedented amount of funding to entities like Pittsburgh. 

Another good sign is the uptick in city revenue that Lamb reported in June. Key income streams, including parking and entertainment taxes, were decimated by the pandemic and were slow to recover — until the second quarter of 2022, when they neared pre-pandemic levels, Lamb announced in June. 

“This administration is in a much more positive position when it comes to being able to tackle these projects,” compared to previous administrations, Lamb said. 

Mayor Ed Gainey at a press conference in the City-County Building
Mayor Ed Gainey at a press conference May 5 to announce a new plan for the city's bridges. Press Secretary Maria Montaño stands to his left. (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource)

Finding money for big infrastructure projects involves navigating a complex system of state and federal funding sources, which often involves competing with other entities for limited resources. Having a clearer understanding of its own priorities and plans, Pawlak said, will enable the city to access more money.

“We need as strong and current an assessment as possible and we need guidance on how to adopt modern best practices so that we’re ready to go as those funds come online [and] we can make sure that our region secures as much of that funding as possible,” Pawlak said. 

After the two-year term with WSP, Pawlak said the city will look to expand its in-house bridge management and engineering staff to ensure best practices and systems that WSP recommends can be made permanent. “It’s fair to say that there’s room for us to grow in our internal maintenance functions,” Pawlak said, and the recommendations from WSP could impact decisions on staffing in addition to the capital budget. 

I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of rating the condition of our bridges and then mapping out how that repair schedule should look long term

Controller Michael Lamb

The city, Lamb noted, went from having an in-house department to handle most engineering services to today’s practice of contracting most engineering work. He suggested the city should try to settle somewhere between the two as it further stabilizes after state oversight and the pandemic.

“We’re finally now getting to the point where we’re having a more robust capital budget and we’re able to really assess where we stand when it comes to engineering services,” Lamb said. “And how much of that should be in-house hires and how much of that we should rely on contracted help. And that’s really something that the administration, I’m sure they’re wrestling with and need to make some decisions on.”

Global firm no stranger to Pittsburgh

WSP describes itself as a provider of technical strategic advice in many areas, including infrastructure, transportation, mining, oil and gas.  According to its website, about a fifth of its employees are based in the United States, where Pittsburgh is home to one of its 150 American offices.

Lou Ruzzi, a structural engineer in the Pittsburgh office, formerly held the same job at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation [PennDOT]. The firm’s domestic CEO, Lou Cornell, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, according to the company website.

Pittsburgh has contracted with WSP three times in recent years. The city commissioned the firm to produce designs for the reconstruction of the South Highland Bridge and the South Negley Bridge, and most recently to plan safety improvements for a section of Liberty Avenue.

The South Highland Bridge has been seen through the construction phase to completion. The city paid WSP more than $500,000 in the mid-2010s to design a revamp of the South Negley Bridge (between Centre and Ellsworth avenues), but construction is still not scheduled. 

Emergency crews survey the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park on Jan. 28, 2022.
Emergency crews survey the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge in Frick Park on Jan. 28, 2022. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

That bridge is rated in poor condition and made headlines this year after residents noticed wooden posts apparently bearing weight under the bridge. The city temporarily closed the pedestrian walkways for repairs. The bridge was structurally deficient back in 2015 when the city initiated the plans to replace it, officials said at the time.

City spokesperson Maria Montaño attributed the delays to litigation involving another bridge that, like the South Negley Bridge, spans a Norfolk Southern railroad. That litigation was settled earlier this year, she said, but she did not provide an estimate for when work may move forward. Pawlak said the span has been assessed as safe for cars, but more serious problems emerged on the pedestrian walkways that were fixed and reopened this year.

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 Ashanti McLaurin.

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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...