Pittsburgh Business Times: New wave of infrastructure funding is flowing in to bring upgrades around Pittsburgh

As the executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., Tracey Evans has cultivated a keen eye for deferred maintenance.

In her long-distressed community, Evans notes concrete falling off a railroad trestle that was originally built in 1916 as just one example of infrastructure long in need of an upgrade.

“I do think those kinds of things are overdue. They’re over 100 years old,” she said, adding, “a lot of the infrastructure is aging and needs to be replaced.”

After decades in which infrastructure investment has fallen behind in the U.S., most recently evidenced by the news that the 2022 collapse of Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge could have been avoided with proper maintenance, some new jolts of federal funding appear to demonstrate new priority for infrastructure upgrades.

In back-to-back months, federal officials announced the Pittsburgh region is set to receive upwards of $275 million to complete various infrastructure projects.

The first came in early December when the region’s congressional delegation announced $142.3 million for what it called the Eastern Pittsburgh Multimodal Corridor project, a multipronged plan to bring upgrades to the Parkway East and the companion East Busway. According to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the improvements are expected to add 2,500 jobs and around $255 million to the region’s economy.

Then, in late January, the Pittsburgh area received another funding announcement, this time totaling $132 million dedicated to bridge repairs and renovations. The funding is for three strategically important spans: The Fort Duquesne Bridge (a $60 million allocation), the West End Bridge ($47 million) and the McKees Rocks Bridge ($25 million).

Rich Fitzgerald, the new executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, has a unique perspective on the influx of infrastructure funding.

After serving three terms as Allegheny County executive, managing funding for plenty of infrastructure projects, Fitzgerald now leads the federally designated metropolitan planning organization that works to plan and prioritize state and federal transportation funding in a 10-county region.

He noted the outsized funding established by the federal government through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is expected to allocate $1.2 trillion nationwide over 10 years; the Inflation Reduction Act, with a $891 billion allocation; and the $53 billion CHIPS and Science Act, intended to spur American semiconductor manufacturing. And while this money will be spread out nationwide over many projects and programs, not all infrastructure related, combined the three acts represent a near unprecedented gusher of public investment.

“Those three pieces of legislation have brought in more money than I can remember during my 25-year government career,” Fitzgerald said. “Hopefully, we’ll be a region that’s improved our travel times, improved our access and made our roads and bridges safe. Any time you can improve access, you do improve the economic climate and desirability.”

Such a large influx of funding to be allocated in the years to come will join other infrastructure investment already underway in western Pennsylvania.

That includes a $2 billion-plus Clean Water Plan by Alcosan, establishing a new network of underground tunnels along the three rivers, and the $291 million PRTX Bus Rapid Transit project under construction by Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) from downtown through Uptown and Oakland, along with many other projects in the works throughout the region.

Earlier this year at its annual meeting, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development outlined plans for the year, citing taking full advantage of federal funding as one of its main goals.

Matt Smith, chief growth officer for the Conference, told the Business Times how important such investments can be in helping to grow the economy in the region.

“I think it’s particularly important in the transportation and infrastructure space because of our pursuit of helping companies here in southwestern Pennsylvania,” he said.

He added a “strong transportation and infrastructure system” is typically one of the first subjects the Conference is asked about by companies considering the region or ones deciding whether to grow here.

“Funding from Washington in the transportation and infrastructure space is particularly important,” he added, calling it a multiplier in its economic impact.

He expects the eastern corridor funding in particular will prove to increase the economic prospects of the neighboring communities and improve the quality of life.

Smith said the two recent federal outlays will be followed by others, given the scale and the scope of the three federal bills passed, especially noting the funding opportunities of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“We see future federal opportunities that are going to far outweigh the opportunities we’ve had over the last generation,” he said.

To be sure, the roll out of the funding in terms of projects will take years.

Nicole Haney, a community relations coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which allocates the federal funds, said the three bridge projects are being planned out and will need to be carefully coordinated.

“We will be considering the construction timelines for West End, McKees Rocks and Fort Duquesne as they are all intertwined and will be crucial to maintaining traffic while working on each individual bridge,” she said via email. “At this time, we are several years away from physical construction, but this recent funding ensures we can continue to advance the design of all three bridges.”

For Wilkinsburg, the new east corridor funding is expected to bring nearby improvements to the busway at the same time that the community is working with PRT on a plan to relocate the community’s busway stop.

The early proposal to move the station is one Evans expects can benefit the community’s recently restored train station, which is seeking a tenant or two, and dovetail with plans to develop more than 200 apartments in the vicinity.

Adam Brandolph, spokesman for PRT, said the new federal funding for the east corridor will become part of the PRT’s ongoing list of projects.

“We have a lot of capital projects going on … to ensure what we have today will remain in good condition,” he said.

Offering a sense of the ongoing scale of the need, Brandolph said PRT invests in the range of $100 million in capital projects every year but still has a backlog of $1 billion in budgeted projects.

“The East Busway, despite being 40 years old, is in relatively good shape,” he said. “We do put quite a bit of money into the maintenance of the busway on a fairly regular basis.”

Chris Sandvig, founder and executive director of Mobilify Southwestern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that advocates for less car-dependent transportation choices, said he expects the federal investment will enable big improvements for the East Busway.

“What this money means for transit in the eastern suburbs is there’s not a direct connection from the parkway to the busway,” he said, explaining how the shoulder of the Parkway East will be “reengineered so it’s essentially a bus rapid transit lane.”

“It opens up an opportunity to leverage rapid transit along a corridor that is already congested where the people are,” he added.

Other areas where new infrastructure investment is being targeted are eager for the additional economic support.

Craig Rippole, president of Trinity Commercial Development, expects the invested upgrades in the McKees Rocks Bridge will further improve a vital connection to a growing mass of new logistics and infrastructure development along the riverfront communities it spans over.

“The access that the bridge offers helps to differentiate McKees Rocks and Stowe Township from other communities and is ideal for logistics and transportation,” he said.

Another project where infrastructure funding could make a huge difference to the surrounding communities is at the West End Bridge and on each of its sides along the Ohio River.

Riverlife, the local nonprofit institution that champions the city’s riverfronts, is working to thread in an important infrastructure addition.

Working with $2 million in trail development funding from Allegheny County, Riverlife has hired Kansas City-based design firm El Dorado to devise proposals to build new bike-and-pedestrian ramps on each end of the West End Bridge, which Riverlife President and CEO Matthew Galluzzo points out is set to turn 100 years old in 2032.

“Our move is to move in lock step with Alcosan’s Clean Water Plan and PennDOT’s project,” he said, with Alcosan’s tunneling project set for locations on each side of the bridge.

Daniel Renner, an architect based in the Portland, Oregon, office of El Dorado, provided an overview of the conceptual approaches for the new public amenities the firm is designing on each side of the bridge during a February community Zoom meeting of the Manchester Citizens Corp.

The north side of the bridge is proposed as a spiraling ramp with an overlook, a public plaza and a picnic area. On the other side amid the tangle of highways in and around the West End, the concept proposal calls for a more elongated ramp along with an elevated trail.

“A large part of this project is to really allow closer connection to the river,” Renner said.

Galluzzo noted the West End Bridge represents the biggest gap in the city’s 15-mile riverfront trail loop, a project that hopes to draw in hikers and cyclists with a route expected to offer stunning views of the city.

It’s a project, he noted, that also is seeking to better connect neighborhoods on each side of the bridge that have experienced disinvestment over the years.

“Our job is to leverage those investments to make sure the benefits accrue to the public,” he said.

He added the goal is to have El Dorado’s design and the work of other consultants 90% completed by the end of the year, expecting substantial fundraising will need to take place to be able to build the new ramp structures.

David Heaton, president and CEO of The Buncher Co., owns Gateway View Plaza, one of the biggest properties close to the south end of the West End Bridge.

It’s a property that could benefit from easier access on and off the bridge. Heaton acknowledged considering new plans for the building, which totals more than 400,000 square feet on six acres, blending both industrial warehouse use and office.

“The ground floor is strong, but the upper deck is expensive to maintain and a Class B office that is out of favor,” he said.

He admits the firm has considered converting the office to apartments but didn’t yet find it to be economically feasible. However, greater pedestrian access to the West End Bridge could make a case for re-examining the addition of a residential component.

While still unsure of the best plan, he offers a key asset to the property.

“Once you get up there, the views are incredible,” he said.

Securing funds for bridges, as well as to increase access to busways, is very much a big-picture goal for the region, but Sandvig said big federal budget allocations need to better connect to a more comprehensive approach to the region’s transportation and infrastructure needs.

“The political gravitas of western Pennsylvania in Washington has helped us to be successful for quite some time getting money for these big projects,” he said.

Using the work being done on the Eastern Pittsburgh Multimodal Corridor, which includes plenty of bridges that will need repairs as well as updates to the East Busway, as an example of progress for the region, Sanvig hopes the projects represent a changing mindset.

“These sorts of projects help us to shine a light on what’s possible with transit in different ways,” he said.

View the full article at bizjournals.com.