By DONOVAN HARRELL
Pittsburgh’s bridges were thrust into the national spotlight with the collapse of Squirrel Hill’s Fern Hollow Bridge on Jan. 28, the same day President Joe Biden visited Pittsburgh to promote his $3 trillion infrastructure plan.
As the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation into the cause of the collapse, concerns are being raised about the other 175 bridges in Allegheny County that are listed as in poor condition.
But what about Oakland’s bridges?
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s bridge conditions map tool, there are three bridges in or near Oakland that are listed in poor condition.
These include the Charles Anderson Bridge, located on Boulevard of the Allies as it crosses Junction Hollow into Schenley Park; Ramps R and S of the Birmingham Bridge, which connects the South Side to Oakland; and the Swinburne Bridge, located at the intersection of Saline and Frazier streets near Four Mile Run.
These bridges are all open, however, the Charles Anderson and Swinburne bridges have weight restrictions.
Other parts of the Birmingham Bridge are listed in good and fair condition. The five bridges that run through Schenley Park, including the bridge near the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, also are in fair condition.
Inspectors rate bridges from 0 to 9, and bridges are inspected every two years, according to PennDOT.
A bridge with a rating of 9 is considered “excellent,” 7 is labeled “good,” with the bridge having minor issues, 5 is labeled “fair” with a bridge showing some signs of deterioration, and 4 is considered “poor,” with the bridge showing advanced deterioration of its main structures.
The lower ratings of 3 to 0 range from serious to failed and out of service.
“I would argue that our inspection process, certainly in this state, is pretty darn rigorous, and is being carried out by the right people,” said Kent Harries, a civil engineering professor in the Swanson School of Engineering. Inspectors in Pennsylvania, he added, are required to be licensed engineers, which is not a requirement in every state.
While the Fern Hollow Bridge was listed as “poor,” Harries said the label is “a semantic choice of words, and I’m not sure what the right word is. And there are grades of poor …”
“You have bridges that are at essentially a minimum standard to remain in service,” Harries said. “And you can have bridges that require remediation to remain in service. And both of those may be rated as poor.”
The label doesn’t necessarily indicate immediate danger, he added.
“It is a symptom of the decay that we are experiencing in the infrastructure,” Harries said. “We will see more collapses. (But) more often, we will see bridge closures. We will see them shutting down a bridge because it is dangerous. And the reality is that bridge will get replaced.”
Harries estimates that the Fern Hollow Bridge on Forbes Avenue will be open again in roughly two years, with the remnants of the bridge being removed by spring and a new foundation sometime in the summer.
Infrastructure failures are “slow moving,” he said, and societies will adapt as they happen. There are, however, other immediate issues to consider when a bridge collapses.
For one, the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse has created an inconvenience for commuters living in Regent Square, but it also economically strains nearby businesses
Some businesses in Regent Square are already feeling the effects of the decline in traffic and losing revenue, according to WTAE-TV.
When it comes to fixing these bridges, there are multiple complex issues to consider, Harries said. It would take enormous amounts of money and manpower to shut down and fix every “poor” bridge in the city.
And money and manpower are limited resources. The decision to fix bridges also depends on policies from elected officials to allocate the necessary resources, and there never seems to be enough on hand, he said.
Harries said there needs to be a reframing of how society views infrastructure, seeing it as “the foundation of the society on which we live, everything we do.”
“This is bigger than one bridge,” Harries said.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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