Pittsburgh Bridge Collapses Hours Before Biden Infrastructure Visit

28 January 2022

PITTSBURGH — In the City of Bridges, it was not a standout. The bridge, four lanes of Forbes Avenue raised on a steel frame over a picturesque wooded ravine, carried traffic to and from the neighborhoods on the city’s East End. It was around 50 years old and, according to inspectors, in poor condition, but even by those measures was not particularly exceptional in Pittsburgh.

Then on Friday morning, hours before President Joe Biden was scheduled to visit the city to discuss the condition of the country’s infrastructure, the bridge collapsed into the snowy hollow below. At least 10 people were injured, four of them seriously enough to require hospital attention, according to a hospital spokesperson. But no one was killed and officials said that none of the injuries were life-threatening.

For a bridge that is routinely crowded with traffic in morning and evening rush hours, this was especially fortunate. The timing of the collapse — around 6:45 a.m. — and the fact that city schools were opening two hours late because of snow were partially to thank for that.

When the bridge fell, said Darryl Jones, the Pittsburgh fire chief, only four cars and a bus — carrying a driver and two passengers — were on it. He described a challenging rescue operation, with emergency workers rappelling down into the snowy ravine and then setting up “a daisy chain with hands just grabbing people and pulling them up.” The collapse ruptured a gas line that was quickly shut off, Jones said, but it left a pungent odor lingering in the area throughout the morning.

Officials said the cause of the collapse was not yet known, although engineers and officials alike blamed the disaster on years of deferred maintenance. The National Transportation Safety Board announced it was sending a team of investigators.

That it fell on the day of Biden’s visit was an unhappy coincidence that one local official called “surreal.” When the presidential motorcade arrived in the early afternoon, it made a stop at one end of the fallen bridge, where officials and rescue workers were gathered in the snow looking down at the wreckage.

In his remarks several hours later, Biden cited the bridge collapse as clear proof of why his administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan was urgently needed.

“There are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and in just as decrepit condition as that bridge was,” he said, pledging that “we’re going to rebuild that bridge, along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country.”

But with such a backlog of needed repairs, officials acknowledge that the $1.6 billion that the plan directs to Pennsylvania’s bridges would just be a start.

Nationally, according to the latest infrastructure report card prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 42% of bridges are more than a half-century old, and nearly 8% of them — more than 45,000 bridges — are considered “structurally deficient.” Pennsylvania’s bridges are even older than the national average, and the state has more than double the average of bridges rated in poor condition, which is one grade above failing.

Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh sits, has 176 bridges with a poor rating, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. An analysis of 2020 National Bridge Inventory data undertaken by Daniel Armanios, a professor of major program management at the University of Oxford, and Cari Gandy, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, says the estimated cost of addressing the structural issues of Pittsburgh’s bridges alone would come to $458 million.

“No question it’s going to help but won’t get us all the way there,” said Ed Gainey, who became mayor less than a month ago. “But, you know, at least we got something.” Gainey said the collapse of the bridge, which was owned by the city, “absolutely shifts the focus” to tackling infrastructure issues.

State Sen. Jay Costa, in whose district the collapsed bridge is located, said a broad assessment of bridges and other infrastructure in the county needed to be conducted as soon as possible.

“It hasn’t been done, I believe, for quite a while,” he said. With routine state and city inspections, there was a general sense of what needed repair, he added, but without a systemwide look, it was hard to know what projects were most urgent. Pittsburgh is home to nearly 450 bridges, dozens of them in serious need of repair and refurbishment. “This was not a high-priority bridge,” Costa said in a phone interview not far from where the bridge lay in pieces in the ravine.

Jonathan Shimko, past president of the Pittsburgh branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the collapse was likely caused by years of deferred maintenance, rather than a discrete event. Because of “the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of infrastructure,” Shimko said, bridges and other infrastructure “typically don’t get a lot of attention until something catastrophic like this happens.”

The nearly 450-foot bridge, which was lauded by the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1974 for its “sense of logic and beauty,” had seen better days. In inspection reports from 2011 through 2017, it was rated in “poor” condition. The mayor said the bridge was last inspected by the city in September.

It carried around 14,500 vehicles each day, according to inspection reports, as the main artery through the middle of Frick Park, a 644-acre expanse of wooded hills named for Henry Clay Frick, one of the city’s most famous — and most ruthless — steel magnates.

At roughly 50 years old, it was “in the range of where you would see the useful life of the bridge start to decline,” said Kevin Heaslip, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

With bridge construction in the United States at its height in the 1960s and ’70s, many bridges are reaching middle age. But with limited funds, state and local transportation departments tend to put off necessary maintenance.

“Deferring of maintenance over time ends up adding up,” Heaslip said. “And that’s kind of what we saw here.” Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive, echoed the urgent need for the funding in the infrastructure bill, pointing out that just four years ago, part of a major thoroughfare not far away had collapsed in a landslide.

“We’ve been holding things off and waiting and pushing, past the limits sometimes unfortunately, and delaying these things that needed to be done because the money just wasn’t there,” he said.

Fitzgerald added: “So we got to fix these things. Because, you know, one of these days, our luck’s going to run out.”

The condition of the bridge was not lost on many of the Pittsburghers who regularly walk and jog beneath its rusted span in the trails that wind along Fern Hollow Creek. Greg Kochanski, a software engineer, was walking his dog under the bridge about three years ago when he noticed that one of the X beams that stabilized the bridge was so rusted that it had disconnected from the column to which it had been attached.

He reported this to the city in a tweet and, several weeks later, he said, noticed that the rusted beam had been removed.

“I wasn’t really expecting it to collapse,” Kochanski said Friday morning. “But no, it didn’t surprise me.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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