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November 9, 2006

Oakland bridge project delayed again

The crumbling Boulevard of the Allies bridge over Forbes Avenue is on borrowed time, that much is certain. But for PennDOT officials it’s a race against the clock to begin a planned bridge replacement project or risk being forced to close the deteriorating span should its condition considerably worsen.

Construction was to have begun last spring, but design issues that delayed the bidding process pushed that estimate to October. The project suffered yet another delay this fall when construction bids opened Sept. 28 came in much higher than expected, forcing PennDOT to scramble to revamp design plans and divert money from other projects in order to keep the bridge project on track.

The department’s goal now is to open bids Feb. 1, which would allow a spring start to construction once a contractor is selected, and project completion by the end of 2008, PennDOT District Executive Dan Cessna said.

Cessna said work between Etna and the Highland Park Bridge on Route 28 North is being deferred to free some $25 million for the Oakland bridge project. “The critical nature of the Boulevard of the Allies is the reason we’re doing that,” he said.

Foundation funding has been obtained to finance the cost of landscaping elements, also cutting PennDOT’s anticipated project costs.

The two-year bridge project, part of a larger plan to create an attractive new portal to Oakland, includes the demolition and reconstruction of the mainline span over Forbes Avenue, the replacement of south and north ramps with new roadway ramps and the elimination of the contra-flow traffic lane on Forbes Avenue.

PennDOT rejected all six bids after the low bid of $31.8 million came in nearly 50 percent higher than the department’s estimates. PennDOT now is re-working the bid specifications to allow contractors more flexibility in scheduling and in design — moves aimed at cutting costs, said Cessna.

Cessna admitted PennDOT likely underestimated the complexity of several of the walls included in the plan design, which affected cost estimates. And, Cessna said, high transportation, steel and raw material costs also played a role in the sticker shock.

To cut costs, PennDOT plans to modify the design to give contractors flexibility in the sequence of construction activities and to allow a design-build process in which the contractor designs parts of the project as it is built.

Cessna estimated that about $5 million worth of aesthetic upgrades were included in the initial estimates; the department now is trying to cut that price tag to about $2 million without eliminating the aesthetic elements that community members desire. He said PennDOT officials have discussed with Oakland stakeholders its cost-cutting plan that would allow contractors more leeway in wall types and decorative elements as well as scheduling flexibility.

“A lot of effort has been put in by the community to develop a very attractive bridge project,” Cessna said. “It’s a very unique and beautiful design. … We’re not sacrificing that quality.”

While details now may be somewhat different from what’s pictured in early renderings (virtual images and information on the project are available online at, Cessna said key decorative elements such as arched beams, pilasters on top of the span and decorative eagles all are anticipated to remain part of the design, although the details may be somewhat different from what’s been pictured.

John Wilds, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor of community relations, who has participated in community stakeholder meetings on the University’s behalf, affirmed, “We don’t want to see a standard PennDOT bridge there.” He said recent meetings with the department have allayed those concerns.

“Even as PennDOT looked at the high bids, they’re holding true to their promise to the community that the aesthetics incorporated into the bridge design will remain,” Wilds said.

If there’s a bright side to the delay, it’s that drivers may have a temporary bit of elbow room on Forbes Avenue before the bridge project begins. Wilds said the portion of the Magee Women’s Research Institute building construction that has closed one lane of Forbes Avenue is on track to be completed by December. That could mean a brief respite with the additional lane open before the bridge project would once again create a bottleneck at the entrance to Oakland.

Lane closures and detours will be part of the Boulevard of the Allies project and drivers will need to do without the bridge for about six months during the replacement. Cessna said it could be a year before the project progresses to the point where the bridge will be closed and demolished.

However, Cessna said, he could not guarantee that the bridge will remain open until then, given its condition. The span already is on a frequent (three-month) inspection schedule and is posted with a weight limit. He said PennDOT in recent years has poured between $300,000 and $500,000 each year in stopgap maintenance to keep the bridge open in the interim.

Cessna said PennDOT hopes to keep the structure open to avoid unnecessary additional traffic snarls.

“We’re moving very quickly to get this dealt with,” he said, adding that cost has to be factored in. “We just can’t spend an extra $10 million to avoid that risk.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 6

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