PGH Union-Progress: Pittsburgh moving ahead on nearly $500 million of bridge work recommended by consultant

The numbers that Pittsburgh consultant WSP Inc. has put together estimating the funds the city needs to care for its 146 bridges are stark: $471.6 million over the next 32 years.

That includes $135.4 million for nine bridges that need immediate work, $276.3 million for 98 bridges that need extensive work by 2039, and $59.4 million for long-range projects that should be completed before 2056. Additionally, the city should start spending at least $9.65 million a year on routine bridge maintenance to reduce deterioration, the consultant said.

The good news is that the routine maintenance money is budgeted for the first time this year and the city has shown renewed participation in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which serves as the clearinghouse for federal funding to support the city’s immediate needs and prepare for future projects.

The city hired WSP shortly after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in January 2022 to give new Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration a full rundown of the city’s bridge needs. Fern Hollow had been rated in poor condition for more than 10 years before the collapse, but the city had done little to obtain funding to fix it.

The consultant has prepared five reports for the city over the past two years, including assessing immediate needs and recommending an in-house bridge division, which didn’t exist before. The Union Progress obtained the most recent reports on the city’s overall bridge needs and yearly maintenance requirements through a Right to Know request.

Eric Setzler, the city’s chief engineer, said the numbers are huge, but they aren’t a surprise. The city has been “very aggressive” in working with SPC and the state Department of Transportation to move immediate and major projects forward, he said, and nine projects have been recommended for inclusion in the June’s Transit Improvement Program, which SPC updates every two years.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re more involved in that process,” Setzler said. “SPC and PennDOT have been great partners in moving these projects forward.

“That way of taking a project from early design to construction is a multi-year process. We have a lot of projects in the very early stages right now.”

The most immediate project is the Charles Anderson Bridge that carries the Boulevard of the Allies from Oakland into Schenley Park and has been closed since last March. After a special appeal from Gainey, the city worked with SPC to cancel emergency repairs and move a full rehabilitation project into the funding stream earlier than expected.

Final design won’t be done for six months, the bids on the work are due before the end of the month and construction should start before the end of the year.

Setzler noted that at the recommendation of PennDOT the city added the replacement of another small bridge known as Panther Hollow Overpass to the project. The bridge also has problems and it makes sense to upgrade it at the same time rather than interrupt traffic again in a few years, he said.

Both projects could cost as much as $50 million total.

The Swindell Bridge, which crosses above Interstate 279 to link Pittsburgh’s Perry South and Northview Heights neighborhoods and has been closed twice in the past year for emergency repairs, has been under design since last summer. It is scheduled for a $13.7 million rehabilitation that will include rehabilitation of the truss, cleaning, painting and replacement of the deck.

The other seven projects proposed for the new TIP in priority order are:

Davis Avenue Bridge over Woods Run, $3.75 million replacement; Swinburne Bridge over Saline Street in lower Oakland, $26.1 million replacement; 28th Street Bridge over the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in Polish Hill, $10 million rehabilitation; parking lot bridge over Saw Mill Run Boulevard at Woodruff Street, $1.5 million demolition; West Carson Street bridge over Chartiers Creek, $7.9 million replacement; Bloomfield Bridge, $36.5 million preservation.

Overall, WSP cited 37 bridges in need of high priority work, but some of them were recommended for work after 2026.

Setzler said the city is taking steps to move along other proposed projects by engaging consultants to design small groups of bridges. For example, one consultant will do the Maple Avenue Bridge over North Charles Street on the North Side and the Corley Street and Calera Street bridges over Streets Run on the South Side while another is doing the Elizabeth Street Bridge in Hazelwood and the Herron Avenue Bridge in the Strip District.

Design should begin in a couple of months with construction expected in about three years.

The maintenance recommendations also are key, Setzler said. Before Fern Hollow collapsed, the city had spent about $700,000 annually on routine bridge maintenance, far below WSP’s recommendation of $9.65 million.

This year, Setzler said, the city has budgeted just over $9 million for maintenance, such as cleaning drains, spot painting and other improvements that can extend the life of bridges. With a $900,000 carryover from the previous year, he said, the city should be able to do the recommended work.

Additionally, the city is expanding its in-house bridge maintenance crew, so it should be able to do some of that work at a lower cost with its own employees in future years, he said.

Inspection reports from Fern Hollow criticized the city for ignoring repeated recommendations for routine work like cleaning drains, which led to serious deterioration of steel components.

“These kinds of maintenance projects will slow down the deterioration process and prevent problems before they become bigger issues over the years,” Setzler said.

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