The collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge, Jan. 31, above Frick Park. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette photo)
A $25.3 million grant from the federal government to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has allowed the state agency to begin preliminary work on replacing the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh that collapsed Jan. 29.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) notified the state that the rebuilding project was awarded the funds through the National Highway Performance Program. That initiative, which is used to pay for special projects, received millions of dollars in extra money through the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in November.
The 497-ft.-long bridge collapsed from Forbes Avenue in Point Breeze into a ravine underneath it in the city's Frick Park, injuring 10 people.
The bridge is a particularly important connection between Pittsburgh's Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods, and, before the pandemic, carried approximately 14,000 vehicles a day.
Even with the federal money, though, PennDOT officials told the Post-Gazette, that it is too soon to predict how long it will take to build the new structure.
That is because supply-chain problems have made steel beams and other construction supplies difficult to obtain, Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT's district executive, said in an interview with the Pittsburgh newspaper.
"We can't even go there right now," Moon-Sirianni said about how long the project might take. "We literally just had a meeting of the minds with [Pittsburgh officials Feb. 1] to get started."
Run-Up to Replacement Should Be Quick
One of the first steps, which she noted should happen quickly, is to find private firms to make up a design-build team that will work together on all aspects of the replacement project. That arrangement, she explained, coupled with emergency declarations by the state and city that will allow the project to be built without following normal bidding procedures, should speed up the process because some aspects of the work can move to construction while other elements are still being designed.
In ordinary circumstances, a project is fully designed and put out for bids as a complete package before any work begins.
"Those emergency declarations allow us to move more quickly," Moon-Sirianni noted. "Our goal is to do all of the work with the design-build team."
She added that she does not expect the new bridge to cost much, and any money not spent on the structure could be used for other projects.
Although the Fern Hollow Bridge is owned by the city, PennDOT will oversee the replacement because it has more experience with emergency construction. The agency plans to work collaboratively with city officials throughout the project.
Jason Zang, an assistant district executive who oversees construction for PennDOT, along with his colleague, Shane Szalankiewicz, a district bridge engineer, said agency officials have not decided what type of design the new bridge will follow. That will depend on several factors, including time of construction, which type of beams are most available, the cost, and the impact on Frick Park.
Procuring construction supplies, though, have become a particular problem, Moon-Siriani said.
"That is our biggest concern. On a given day, suppliers might have a bunch of a particular item available. Then you go back the next day, and they don't have any."
She told the Post-Gazette that she does not expect this to happen, but there could be some attempt to slow down other projects so supplies are available to keep the Fern Hollow bridge rebuild moving if materials become scarce.
Much Work to Be Done This Winter
Zang said field work will have to wait until after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators finish their work examining the rubble. Following that, he explained, removal of debris and demolition of the remainder of the bridge will have to be completed — likely while winter weather continues.
"It's a good time of year to begin design," he noted. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that has been going on since [the collapse]. There's so much desk work to do."
PennDOT's Szalankiewicz said the project faces several challenges, such as working around the park, fitting equipment in the tight space above the ravine and staging construction to minimize disruption to the residents who live on the Point Breeze end of the bridge. Much of the work likely will be limited to daytime hours, he added.
Moon-Sirianni said the emergency project should not interfere with PennDOT's regular construction schedule this year, which often includes more than $100 million in new and continuing projects in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
"I think we have an extremely good staff that is capable of handling the regular work and this special project."
The collapse of the decades old four-lane bridge came after it had been rated in "poor" condition for at least 10 years because of deck and superstructure deterioration. NTSB investigators say finding the cause could take as long as 18 months.
Below is CEG's original report on the bridge collapse in Pittsburgh...
Just hours before President Biden was to visit Pittsburgh Jan. 28 to tout his infrastructure plan, a bridge with a troubled inspection history collapsed, injuring 10 people and stranding seven vehicles, including an articulated transit bus.
The wrecked structure spans a ravine in the city's Frick Park and carried traffic on Forbes Avenue.
The collapse of the 52-year-old steel rigid frame bridge took place as the city prepared for Biden's visit, who took a detour to visit the disaster scene before moving onto his scheduled visit to Hazelwood, Pa., to push his $1 trillion plan to overhaul the nation's infrastructure — including bridges.
In a whirlwind rescue, Pittsburgh Fire Chief Darryl Jones said crews rappelled 100 to 150 ft. down the steep hillside to help pluck the injured people out of the rubble, later earning praise from the president.
"These guys deserve an incredible amount of credit going down here," Biden said while visiting the scene.
In a statement, the Pittsburgh Port Authority said the bus that became trapped on the fallen Fern Hollow Bridge was headed outbound around 6:45 a.m. and had nearly reached the east end of the structure when it collapsed.
A port authority spokesperson said the bus slid backward at about a 45-degree angle, but it stopped when its rear got caught on a broken slab. Emergency crews were then able to pull out the driver and the two passengers, who were among the 10 injured.
After two days of searching under the broken structure, officials were confident that no one was trapped under the bridge while using a Frick Park walking trail.
"We called in our Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Strike Team 1, who have the equipment and personnel to go in, drill in various spots of the bridge decking, [and] look inside the void spaces making sure no one was there," Jones said to the Post-Gazette, adding that police K-9s aided in the search.
The collapse also triggered what Jones said was a massive gas leak that emitted a sound like a jet engine when a line broke on Forbes Avenue near South Dallas Avenue.
One resident who lives near the park was startled by the sounds coming from the accident site.
"There was a boom, then a monster sound," said Melissa Bakth, who said she heard the four-lane bridge fall, followed by the rushing sound of the broken gas line. "It was so loud, and it didn't stop."
Local utility crews quickly turned off the gas and isolated the break. Several nearby families were initially evacuated from their homes but have since been allowed to return.
Frick Park will remain closed until further notice, and a 100-yard area around the site of the collapse is being patrolled by city police.
Replacing the Vital Bridge Could Take Years
The Forbes Avenue bridge through Frick Park, owned by the City of Pittsburgh, was a 497-ft. structure with a three-span steel rigid frame and carried approximately 14,000 vehicles a day. It was built in the early 1970s to replace an earlier bridge that had been there since 1901.
Building a new bridge will likely take close to two years, said City Councilman Corey O'Connor, whose district includes the park. He added that the city will have to look at design and engineering options before securing funding and putting the replacement project out for bid.
"You're looking at millions of dollars that right now, I don't know where that would be in the city budget," he admitted. Those monies may have to be supplied by the state or federal government, O'Connor said.
He also noted that the city will have to carefully coordinate the rebuilding of the bridge with PennDOT because of construction expected to start in 2025 on the Parkway East project outside of the nearby Squirrel Hill tunnels. If the timing is not just right, O'Connor said, those two projects could create significant traffic issues for Pittsburgh drivers.
Several Probes Quickly Began
The investigation into the collapse got under way quickly and involve multiple agencies, including the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Hours after the accident, Gov. Tom Wolf visited the site of the disaster before signing a disaster emergency proclamation for Allegheny County, authorizing state agencies to use all available resources and personnel to manage the emergency without being hampered by usually required bidding and contract procedures.
"With the Fern Hollow Bridge seeing more than 14,000 cars daily, it's critical that we act quickly to reconstruct it so that commerce can continue, and life is not interrupted," Wolf said. "This declaration allows us to support the county in getting to work quickly, making funding available, and reducing red tape or other barriers to completion."
The governor's actions were followed by those of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on Jan. 30, who signed a similar declaration in the wake of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse to speed up the availability of federal funds and cleanup, and to help coordination of efforts between the city and PennDOT, according to a statement by the mayor's office.
Gainey noted that the city will take part in the NTSB's official investigation to "allow [Pittsburgh] and all relevant departments to share information with the NTSB in support of their independent investigation and to receive information that can be used to improve safety."
The Post-Gazette reported that DOMI will be tasked with working alongside PennDOT in managing the cleanup and traffic flow, which will be impacted by the loss of the bridge.
NTSB Opens Probe
Officials from the NTSB arrived at the scene of the bridge collapse the evening following the disaster with a multidisciplinary team that included structural engineers, material engineers and other experts with more than 150 years of combined experience.
"It's our job to figure out what happened, why it happened and to prevent it from happening again," NTSB Chairperson Jennifer Homendy told the Post-Gazette. "So, we'll go through the process of an investigation. Our role here will be to document the scene, to collect perishable evidence, to also gather inspection records, maintenance records, and then we'll take that and eventually we'll do some analysis on that information so that in the end we can issue recommendations to improve safety nationally, not just locally."
That process is expected to take 12 to 18 months, Homendy noted, but it could last longer if there are complications.
The NTSP's first step is to map the scene with the expertise of a crash reconstructionist, who will use a drone.
Then the agency will begin the process of moving parts of the wreckage, according to Dennis Collins, NTSB's investigator in charge.
"It's kind of like peeling the layers of an onion to see where things were and where they ended up in the collapse," he explained. "Of course, we're looking for indications of where it began."
Collins added that engineers will be searching for signs of stress, fracture and deterioration in the materials that comprised the bridge, such as rust.
"I do want to stress that those are just general [indicators]," he said. "We have no factual information on this collapse."
A Troubled Inspection History
The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge 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.
The Pittsburgh newspaper discovered information from the inventory that show the bridge was consistently found to be in poor shape during inspections from 2011 to 2017, with estimated repairs at $1.5 million.
Gainey said the structure was last inspected in September 2021. A statewide report from last year noted the bridge was still in poor condition.
O'Connor said DOMI had been looking at the September inspection report to determine if anything was missed by the city agency.
He revealed that work was done on the bridge two years ago, which included the replacement of steel beams under the expanse with a type of bungee cord that held everything together. The bridge also was repaved at that time, he noted.
Severe Bridge Damage Reported by Resident Years Ago
The Post-Gazette reported Jan. 29 that one local resident, Greg Kochanski, a software engineer, said he sent an alert to the city three years ago reporting a rusted and detached bridge support while walking his dog on the trail underneath the span.
He snapped a few photos and posted one to his Twitter account, adding the city's 311, non-emergency handle, writing, "@PGH311 I hope someone is keeping an eye on the underside of the Forbes Avenue bridge over Frick Park? One of the big 'X' beams is rusted entirely through (and, yes, I see the cables, so, it's probably not a crisis)."
The city Tweeted back to him three days later that it had received the message and created a ticket to track his concern, one that was later closed. What is not clear, the newspaper noted, is whether any significant repairs were made.
Kochanski said he noticed that the detached beam was later removed, and "after that I kind of figured it was taken care of and I gradually forgot about it."
State records show Allegheny County has the highest number of bridges in the state in poor condition — 176 in all — as well as the highest number of bridges overall. In the county, 8 percent of 1,186 state bridges are listed in poor condition. Another 20 percent of 397 of local bridges show a poor rating.
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