Bridge work, repairs cause commuter concerns

Multiple bridges closing for repairs, Clemente Bridge shut down for 2 years

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

On February 3, Allegheny County announced plans to repair and replace multiple bridges, leading to mixed commuter concerns over the impact these plans could have on transportation to campus.

Following the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge on January 28, the county released an initial plan to repair and replace over 27 poorly rated bridges “within the next few years,” with seven lined up for construction work this year and possibly 18 more bridge projects to be completed prior to 2024, according to the Trib.

“There is the inconvenience [with the closure of bridges], there’s the problem with rerouting not only bus traffic but also commercial traffic,” said Robert Skertich, a professor and the Director of Public Administration and Organizational Leadership at Point Park. “Then there is us getting to work and school; everybody is affected by it. Whether we are dependent on buses or driving into work and school, it affects everybody.”

“I think fixing bridges should be the county’s top priority, but realistically there are only so many things they can focus on at once,” Andrew Bensch, a junior history and political science major said. “I think the current plan is a good start but should be expanded upon. Unfortunately, I think it will take a national policy initiative for substantial change to happen.”

For a bridge to be categorized as in “good or poor condition,” the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) says that inspectors assign a rating on a scale from zero to nine on either a structure’s “deck, substructure, superstructure, or culvert” to determine if a bridge’s condition is a safety concern.

A rating from seven to nine states a bridge is under a “good condition” classification rating, while a rating of a four or lower classifies that there is “deterioration on at least one structural component” of the bridge, thus, being rated as “poor.”

Bridges within the county are “federally mandated” to be inspected once every two years by a PennDOT-hired consultant if the structure exceeds 20 feet in length, according to WTAE.

For structures that are less than 20 feet long, however, the county contracts their own consultants to inspect the bridges, with inspections required to be performed “at least once every two to five years.”

“Generally, it’s every 24 months that a bridge needs to be looked at by a competent inspector. A competent inspector would be a professional engineer that has specific bridge experience,” Skertich said.“If a bridge is rated poorly, then you have to inspect it more often.”

Since 2012, Allegheny County has finished 95 bridge projects, repairing 51% of the city’s “poorest-rated bridges over the past decade,” costing roughly $284 million.

The county has allocated $38 million for new construction projects, which was received from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it was passed in November. 2021 to complete these initial plans and replacements.

Although plans have been made to fix these bridges, PennDOT records report that there are a total of 176 bridges [county and state-owned] within Allegheny County that are rated in “poor condition.” This has now caused concern among students who rely on bridges to make their commute to campus.

“Whether I drive or take the bus, I use several bridges. If I drive, I use the Fort Duquesne Bridge. If I take the bus, I use many local bridges (such as Bellevue Bridge which goes over I-279) and the Andy Warhol Bridge,” Bensch said. “There really isn’t a way to avoid going over a bridge on my commute. I might be able to make it to the Allegheny River without taking a bridge, but I will definitely need to use a bridge to cross the Allegheny and get into town.”

Although he has not noticed any bridges on his college commute to be in poor condition, Bensch said he is concerned about other bridges.

“There are other bridges that I use often that concern me,” Bensch said. “I live in the North Hills, and one bridge I don’t like is the McKnight Road bridge that carries McKnight Road over Babcock Boulevard. It is pretty old and I’m not sure how it scores in terms of safety. I also don’t like the bridges that go above Washington Boulevard.”

Unlike Bensch, junior public relations and advertising student Diana Navarrete said that upon her college commute over the Veterans Bridge, she has not noticed structural issues. However, she said she is not surprised by the number of bridges that are rated poorly in the county.

“I do not notice the condition of bridges. Either I have a million thoughts in my head or am distracted listening to music, along with being focused on getting to campus to park my car and get to class on time. That does not mean that I am not surprised by the poor conditions of many Pittsburgh bridges,” Navarrete said. “I could not believe it when I saw on the news the collapse of the 50-year old Frick Park bridge that led to a municipal bus going down a ravine with people inside.”

With mixed concerns voiced by students, Bensch said he hopes the county will prioritize fixing the bridges.

“We’ll see how this comment ages, but I don’t think the people of Pittsburgh and students of Point Park need to panic. It is true that there are lots of bridges in poor condition throughout the county, but I don’t think it will affect commutes into Downtown,” Bensch said. “I have faith in the county and the state to [eventually] fix these bridges, but it’s going to take time. For now, I think the best thing we can do is keep pushing our lawmakers to allocate money towards fixing our infrastructure.”

If a bridge closure would happen to affect a student’s commute, however, Dr. Skertich said it is ultimately the students’ responsibility to determine whether they are safely able to make it to campus, and professors should also provide accommodations for non-residential students.

“It’s really up to the professor. I try to be as accommodating as possible. Most of my students in my degree program [public administration program and organizational leadership] are primarily online and are predominantly adult students. So there are not a whole lot of residential students that are in the program, but you still do have to take that into consideration,” Skertich said. “Still, it’s really up to the professor whether they’re going to cut students some slack. It’s just like saying ‘I’m sick’ or ‘I had a death in the family.’ Professors will cut students some slack, probably for a week or two, if it’s the whole semester, then that would be a problem.”

Adding on top of the bridge closures, the Roberto Clemente Bridge closed on February 14 and will be inaccessible through December 2023 with multiple repairs slated, including repainting and work on the actual structure.

The Roberto Clemente bridge has been estimated to carry over “8,000 vehicles daily across the Allegheny County River.”

“People may not care about bridges until one falls, they [local government] have to prioritize what they spend their money on,” Skertich said. “It’s nice to have swimming pools, and it’s nice to have this, that, and the other things but, infrastructure, water and transportation systems, and public safety systems are important.”

Updates on public transportation delays and detours can be found on the Allegheny County Port Authority website.