Pittsburgh bridge collapse highlights how governments put off infrastructure repairs and maintenance
Credit: Pittsburgh Public Safety / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom


Pittsburgh bridge collapse highlights how governments put off infrastructure repairs and maintenance

Consistently deferring repairs and maintenance can lead to disaster.

On Friday, the Fern Hollow Bridge owned by the city of Pittsburgh collapsed, injuring 10 people. Preliminary indications are the bridge collapsed due to the combined weight of several inches of snow and an articulated bus on it. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:

Hours before President Biden was to visit Pittsburgh on Friday to tout his infrastructure plan, a bridge with a troubled inspection history collapsed, injuring 10 people and stranding seven vehicles, including a Port Authority bus, on the wrecked structure that spans a ravine in Frick Park. Three people were rushed to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, and a fourth person – one of two passengers on the bus — was taken to a hospital about two hours later, local officials said.

“We were fortunate,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said, that no one was killed…

The collapse came in the wake of troubling inspections dating to 2011 that show the aging span has been rated in poor condition, according to the National Bridge Inventory. Records from the inventory show that the bridge was consistently found to be in poor shape during inspections from 2011 to 2017, with estimated repairs at $1.5 million.

Mr. Gainey said the bridge was last inspected in September 2021. A statewide report from last year noted the bridge was still in poor condition.

We will need a detailed investigation to determine why the bridge failed. While the bridge certainly needed to be replaced, there was no indication it was going to fail in the short term. Bridges are rated on a scale of zero to nine, with zero being a bridge that is unsafe for vehicles. The Fern Hollow Bridge was rated a four, according to the National Bridge Inspection Standards, indicating it was structurally deficient but supposedly not in danger of collapse.

President Joe Biden, who was already scheduled to be in Pittsburgh to promote the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), told local and state officials, “We’re going to fix them all,” referring to deficient bridges.

“Not a joke, this is going to be a gigantic change,” Biden said. “There’s 43,000 [bridges] nationwide and we’re sending the money.”

Biden wasn’t the only one pointing to the infrastructure law and the money needed to fix the city’s bridges.

“This bipartisan infrastructure law is critical to southwest Pennsylvania and the city of Pittsburgh. We know we have bridges we need to take of,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Fetterman stated, “I hope it’s a wake-up call to the nation that we need to make these infrastructure investments.”

Of the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill, about $36 billion goes toward bridges. Of that total, about 15% is set aside for ‘off-system’ bridges, or those owned by counties or cities like the Fern Hollow Bridge. States are allowed to flex billions more in Surface Transportation Block Grant and Highway Safety Improvement Program funds for bridges.

Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world and federal funding in the infrastructure law is not going to come close to being enough to bring all of the city’s bridges into a state of good repair. Pennsylvania’s bridges are in worse condition than most other states. As the Annual Highway Report published in Nov. 2021 noted:

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in structurally deficient bridges and urbanized area congestion. More than 15% of Pennsylvania’s bridges are structurally deficient, 1.5 times higher than New York’s 10% and three times as high as Ohio’s 5%…Pennsylvania is one of five states that reported more than 15% of their bridges to be structurally deficient. The others are Rhode Island, West Virginia, Iowa, and South Dakota.

Among the 50 states, Pennsylvania has the fifth-highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges and the second-highest number of deficient bridges. And those deficient bridges are disproportionately county- or city-controlled versus state-controlled, which suggests many cities and counties have not prioritized properly maintaining, repairing, or replacing existing bridges.

But it is important to note that this simply isn’t a case of Pittsburgh not having enough money to fix and replace bridges. The city of Pittsburgh has a $613 million annual budget, but about $500 million of that goes towards personnel and benefits. Pittsburgh only budgets about $82 million a year for engineering and construction for all the city’s roadway, transit, flood control, streetlight, fencing, and bridge projects.

Thus, the problem isn’t that Pittsburgh lacks the funding to fix bridges. Rather, the problem is the way the city spends so much of its annual budget on other things and chooses to spend so little of its money maintaining its roads and bridges. The city has known its deficient bridges were a problem but has not prioritized fixing them.

It is time to find ways to fix Pittsburgh’s bridge problems. First, Pittsburgh needs to reevaluate its bridge inspection standards. Most bridges receive only a visual inspection, but bridges showing clear signs of wear receive more in-depth analysis. The city needs to increase the number of bridges that receive more thorough inspections.

Second, Pittsburgh needs to reprioritize its capital budget and spend more of its money repairing and replacing bridges each year. For example, the city could start to trim spending, like the $163 million dedicated to the finance department, by reducing the number of administrative assistants and other potentially non-essential positions. Pittsburgh spends $6 million on its permit office, which requires and authorizes permits for a variety of things, including pool tables. Perhaps some of that type of taxpayer funding could be better spent on bridge repairs.

Third, the city needs to use innovative delivery methods to finance bridge reconstruction projects. The state needs to ensure that Pittsburgh has the authority to enter into public-private partnerships that could be used to speed up the financing, reconstruction, and/or replacement of certain bridges. Pittsburgh should use the model of an availability payment design-build-finance-operate-maintain public-private-partnership that the state government used on the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project to rebuild 558 state-owned bridges. In the state’s Rapid Bridge public-private partnerships, the private party was made responsible for demolishing the existing bridges, managing traffic during construction, and maintaining the bridges for the next 25 years. Most of the bridges were 40-to-75 feet in length, like the Forbes Bridge that just collapsed. Pittsburgh can and should mimic the state’s public-private partnership program.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation chose the public-private partnership structure to accelerate the replacement of the bridges and reduce the costs of design and construction. PennDOT calculated that it was 20% cheaper to enter into a P3 than to have the agency replace the bridges itself. And the Rapid Bridge public-private partnership project was so successful and popular that Gov. Tom Wolf is planning another P3 to replace 11 Interstate bridges across the state. 

There is likely to be ongoing talk about crumbling infrastructure and the need for even more money beyond the funds from the infrastructure law that are already headed to Pittsburgh. But the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse shows how desperately Pittsburgh needs to reprioritize its spending so that roads and bridges are properly maintained. Consistently deferring repairs and maintenance can lead to disaster.

Thankfully, no one was killed in this bridge collapse. To prevent additional disasters and speed up needed bridge repairs, Pittsburgh needs to revisit how it spends its annual budget and enter into an availability payment P3 to efficiently repair its deficient bridges.