The common problem of Pennsylvania bridges

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
This is a Pittsburgh Transit Authority bus that was on the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh when it collapsed Friday morning Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pennsylvania’s bridges need work.

It isn’t just the ones with obvious problems — the ones with crumbling concrete or decaying superstructure. It’s not a question of which. It’s a question of when.

The Fern Hollow Bridge spanning a Frick Park ravine collapsed on the morning of Jan. 28, while people were on their way to work or school or doctor’s appointments. It was a morning little different from any other, and that is the point.

The Fern Hollow Bridge was no different than so many other bridges in Pennsylvania. It was an aging passageway that had been rated poor by PennDOT since 2011. That is 11 years of cars and trucks and buses, college students and toddlers and grandparents driving over a structure the state said was not as safe as it should be.

While that bridge is being replaced and attention has been directed to the state’s and nation’s infrastructure, it is important to realize that every bridge is a Fern Hollow Bridge waiting to happen. The only thing that stands between a bridge that lasts and one that falls is recognizing that maintenance and upkeep are not only important but also absolutely necessary.

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Take the Charles Anderson Bridge. In 2012, the substructure of the bridge that allows the Boulevard of the Allies to pass over Schenley Park’s Junction Hollow was rated as fair. In 2016, the deck was rated as fair. But in 2018, the deck, superstructure and substructure were inspected again. This time they were rated as poor.

That is a lot of deterioration in just two years. How much more has happened in the four years since?

The difference between the work being done at Fern Hollow and what is only in the early planning stages at Charles Anderson is a declaration of a state of emergency. It should not take the infrastructure equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane to accomplish what everyone knows to be needed.

Bridges are built of stone and metal, concrete and asphalt. These are materials that erode and corrode. They succumb to rust and salt. Water seeps into the cracks and expands when it freezes. All of the same forces that create the potholes that plague roads every year are working against bridges in the same way.

The City of Pittsburgh has created a commission to study bridges, along with roads and tunnels, to determine how to allocate funds for repairs.

“We all want our bridges done as soon as possible, but we need to determine which ones need the work ASAP,” Councilman Corey O’Connor said.

This is something every municipality should do, but it’s also important to realize that while repairing bridges in bad shape is expensive, it is costly for a reason. Neglect.

It would have been cheaper to keep the Charles Anderson Bridge in fair or good condition with maintenance than it will be to rehab it to bring it up from poor to good. That’s another thing all of Pennsylvania’s bridges have in common.

— From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.