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Pittsburgh's Charles Anderson Bridge Closed, But Repairs Are in Fast Lane

Tue March 28, 2023 - Northeast Edition #9
90.5 WESA Radio

The Charles Anderson Bridge is a critical link on Boulevard of the Allies, a roadway connecting Squirrel Hill and Greenfield to Oakland and downtown. The bridge also serves as a key entrance to Schenley Park, carrying the Boulevard over the Junction Hollow trails and CSX railroad. (Photo courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh)
The Charles Anderson Bridge is a critical link on Boulevard of the Allies, a roadway connecting Squirrel Hill and Greenfield to Oakland and downtown. The bridge also serves as a key entrance to Schenley Park, carrying the Boulevard over the Junction Hollow trails and CSX railroad. (Photo courtesy of the City of Pittsburgh)

The Charles Anderson Memorial Bridge, which connects Oakland and Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pa., and carries the Boulevard of the Allies over Schenley Park, was blocked off to traffic for repairs and rehabilitation almost two months ago.

A March 22 report from 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh's NPR radio station, said that instead of a short-term closure, the span will remain out of commission for the near future.

However, Mayor Ed Gainey's administration said the change of plans is good news, and that the city will be able to "dramatically expedite" a full rehab of the span that connects the two city neighborhoods.

"My team has been working diligently to find a path to accelerate the funding for this vital piece of our city infrastructure," Gainey said in a release. He added that the city will be able to take "many months out of the projected timeline."

Just how many months is still unclear. In response to questions about the projected timeline, city officials told WESA that conversations with consultants were ongoing, and it would be "premature" to discuss a timeline.

Search Is On for Safe, Speedy Repair

The city closed Charles Anderson this winter after a structural review found that it would not be safe for traffic without repairs. At the time, officials expected even comparatively modest repairs to cost between $1 million to $2 million and take at least four months of work. Because the bridge was already slated for complete rehabilitation, they said they would search for ways to speed up the process.

This is the second time Pittsburgh and its partners have found a way to fast-track a bridge reconstruction project.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) rebuilt the Fern Hollow Bridge within just a year of its collapse in 2022. That project was ramped up after city and state emergency declarations, which allowed design and construction to continue simultaneously.

PennDOT Deputy Executive Secretary Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, who has said repeatedly that it is not possible to speed up all bridge projects, noted that work on the Charles Anderson bridge has been going on for years.

"Only the final design of [Charles Anderson] is being expedited," she said, "which will allow the city of Pittsburgh to begin construction in 2024 or 2025."

Still, the new schedule may be of little comfort to drivers in the short term: Existing detours for motorists will remain in effect until the full rehabilitation is completed (though pedestrians and cyclists may continue to use the bridge). And the temporary repairs that would have reopened the bridge to traffic later this spring are now off the table.

It is not clear just how much time savings there will be from the expedited approach, given that construction was slated to begin in 2025 before the bridge's closure, according to the city's project page. However, at the Pittsburgh City Council meeting on March 22, officials with the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure told councilors that construction funding for the bridge originally was not planned to be allocated until 2027.

But plans for the bridge have been prone to rescheduling before.

A Living Document

Built in 1939, the Charles Anderson Bridge has long been slated for an overhaul. The city's 2016 capital budget distributed $750,000 for preliminary engineering work. In the years that followed, projected allocations and timelines for the project changed repeatedly, according to WESA Radio. Money for the project was earmarked in capital budgets over the next three years, with an allocation that grew to $3.3 million by 2019, but then was not spent down.

Pittsburgh convened public meetings in 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic slowed the work. Even so, in January 2022 the city was able to offer a proposed design for the bridge's rehabilitation. The $48 million overhaul would preserve the bridge's historic nature, allow for better passage of large Pittsburgh Regional Transit buses and school buses, while building wider sidewalks for pedestrians and a separate cycle track for people on bikes.

And the project gained new momentum this winter, when PennDOT and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) stepped in.

Most infrastructure funding comes from the federal government, which does not just write checks directly to Pittsburgh. Instead, the money must go to a Metropolitan Planning Organization, which the feds task with planning transportation priorities for urban regions. For Pittsburgh and the surrounding 10-county region, that organization is called the SPC. For a project to move ahead, it must be on SPC's to-do list, which is assembled every year.

"It's a living document," said Andy Waple, deputy executive director for SPC's programs division.

That to-do list, called the Transportation Implementation Plan, gets amended every month by the SPC's Transportation Technical Committee, a group of planners and engineers who know how to get projects out the door.

At its regular meeting earlier in March, the committee moved the Charles Anderson Bridge up the priority list and allotted $25 million in 2024 to its construction.

Waple said that happened when PennDOT alerted the committee that it could move funds from the state's Bridge Investment Fund, powered with money from the federal infrastructure bill. He said PennDOT took that step due to advocacy from the mayor's office.

Waple added that such allocation changes happen all the time; in fact, if money is not directed to priorities, "We won't receive as much federal money in the future and that money can be taken away."

PennDOT Press Secretary Alexis Campbell noted that the funds moved to support rehabilitation of the Charles Anderson bridge came from projects that had either not started or were facing delays. She said those funds would be replaced when the projects are ready to begin.

The Pittsburgh City Council is expected to support an additional $1.1 million for Michael Baker International, the city's primary consultant for the Charles Anderson Bridge, to move the span into final design.

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