Bridge collapse evidence of infrastructure flaws

Zoe Stratos | Opinions Editor. Pittsburgh Public Safety and the City of Pittsburgh Fire Bureau held a news conference at the intersection of S. Braddock Avenue and Forbes Avenue on Friday. They announced that authorities would be entering the recovery phase over the weekend. From left to right: Lee Schmidt, acting public safety director & deputy director, operations & administration; Darryl Jones, fire chief; Corey O'Connor, city of Pittsburgh councilman; and Cara Cruz, public information officer.

by Zoe Stratos | opinions editor

Feb. 3, 2022

In a heap of snow, rubble and collapsed steel, the Fern Hollow Bridge laid with a Port Authority bus in the center of the wreckage on Friday. Connecting intra-city neighborhoods, the 52-year-old steel structure fell under the weight of seven vehicles making their daily morning commute, and shortly before the president arrived to speak on infrastructure.

Protected by yellow tape and concrete barriers, many stared at the scene in horror and awe — the drivers and passengers lived, with a few minor injuries to both those on the bridge and those responding to the emergency.

The collapse came at an uncanny time, as President Joe Biden took a detour to the scene ahead of his scheduled stop. As he gazed into the ravine, he declared, “we’re going to fix them all.”

Built in 1970, the Fern Hollow Bridge spanned Frick Park allowing for an approximate 14,000 cars to pass over its surface on a daily basis, along with two Port Authority bus routes that run around 200 trips a day.

The constant travel came to a sudden stop at approximately 6:45 a.m., leaving the people in Pittsburgh hoping for a replacement soon. With the new bipartisan program set to begin tackling infrastructure issues, Biden hopes that incidents such as these won’t happen anymore.

According to the official White House website, the program will “rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails, expand access to clean drinking water, ensure every American has access to high-speed internet, tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and invest in communities that have too often been left behind.”

It will also take on supply chain issues, strengthening our nation’s ports, airports and railways, allowing for new jobs to spring up across the U.S. 

Overall, Pennsylvania is spending about $6.1 billion this year on roads and bridges and, if all goes well, expects to receive an additional $4 billion over the next five years through the federal infrastructure program.

During a press conference at the scene on Friday, Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire chief Darryl Jones announced that the collapsed bridge would be a “major inconvenience” for the people of Pittsburgh as authorities begin the “recovery phase” before any plans for rebuilding.

Also at the scene was Pittsburgh Public Safety, as well as Councilman Corey O’Connor. 

Both emphasized the road to recovery, even with city limitations.

“Clean up is most important, and everybody’s safe, that’s great. After that, we have to look at design, engineering, put it out to bid, find funding for it, because you’re looking at millions of dollars that, right now, I don’t know where that would be in the city budget,” O’Connor said. “We’ve seen temporary bridges before, but we have not been told that that’s what they would do. I think it’ll be cleaning and then getting something from PennDOT in design as quick as we can.”

Coming up on a week after initial word from authorities, many state and federal organizations have begun these actions to investigate the incident, remove the damaged vehicles and plan for reconstruction.

As of Feb. 1, neither the state nor the city had released details of past inspections to provide a fuller history of the bridge’s structure and potentially what went wrong that Friday morning. Moreover, inspection crews have not released the details of the most recent report in September.

Shortly after the collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived at the scene to launch an investigation that could take more than a year, with little information released to the public thus far. The NTSB did not respond to The Duke for comment on their progress.

On Jan. 29, they began investigations, mapping the scene with drones before allowing the team to dive into the ground work. The city of Pittsburgh, the Port Authority and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have been included as part of to the investigation.

According to authorities, the Port Authority bus — pulled out of the collapse on Jan. 31 — contained nine video cameras. With the acquisition of the footage, confirmed to be obtained on Jan. 30, the NTSB is now able to probe further.

Until then, other engineering experts are weighing in on what may have caused the catastrophe, and how a typical inspection process works.

The Fern Hollow Bridge had been in poor condition since 2011, according to previous inspections, though the bridge had a reduced weight limit of 26 tons because of these issues.

According to Kevin Heaslip, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, typical bridge inspections are done every two years; however, the condition of the Forbes Avenue bridge called for yearly inspections.

“There are three different aspects of a bridge. One is the bridge deck, which is the roadway surface; the superstructure, which holds the bridge up; And the substructure, which is the connection to the ground,” Heaslip said. “In this case, the deck and the superstructure were rated in poor condition, meaning there were visual signs of deterioration. As for the substructure, it was rated as adequate.”

A poor condition rating does not call for immediate attention nor closure, Heaslip added, only that it should be “slated for improvements or replacements at some point.”

But in between that September inspection date to the Jan. 28 incident — something must have gone wrong.

Although Heaslip, nor any engineer, can pinpoint the exact reason for the collapse at the moment, there are contributing factors.

“In Pittsburgh you have all sorts of weather: snow and warm summers, so the steel on that bridge will expand and contract over time. One of the things that can be done [for preventative maintenance] is painting and sealing the steel to make sure that corrosion doesn’t take place,” Heaslip said.

But even in taking preventative measures, the resources aren’t always there, and the bridge doesn’t always want to cooperate. Roberto Leon, the D.H. Burrows Professor of Construction Engineering at Virginia Tech, commented on these difficulties.

According to Leon, corrosion is the “number one long term issue” for bridges made of steel or cement. In cases of steel structures, the iron becomes oxidized.

“In personal inspections, there’s always one main reason for failure, but three or four other contributing reasons,” Leon said. “But inspection is a costly enterprise. There needs to be an emphasis on maintenance, and we need to be proactive, but there’s not enough resources.” 

Both Heaslip and Leon agreed that even with Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law coming into effect, the journey for repairing bridges across the country, and in the Pittsburgh region, will be difficult.

When it comes to bridges, Pennsylvania has the second highest number of poor condition bridges in the nation, yet almost all 3,353 are open to public use. There are 176 in poor condition in Allegheny County, according to state statistics.

Experts agree the bridges possess issues that need attention, though they are not in immediate danger of collapse.

“In general, the procedures that cities and states use to inspect and manage these bridges work pretty well,” Heaslip said. “In the long term, it’s going to take something in order to rehabilitate or replace these bridges, and certainly I think the funding from the infrastructure bill will help, but it’ll take time.”