Everything you need to know about the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse

Pittsburgh has been no stranger to infrastructure failures. Between regular flooding on Route 51, the collapse of Route 30 in East Pittsburgh in 2018, the Birmingham Bridge deck dropping 8 inches in 2008, the infamous sinkhole that swallowed a Pittsburgh bus in 2019 and many other similar events, the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse looks like another in a series of infrastructure failures in Pittsburgh’s modern history.

But on the day of the collapse, President Biden visited the site. In his remarks to law enforcement officials, he acknowledged the scope of the damage and pledged money to fix the bridges in Pittsburgh and 43,000 other bridges across the country. This was just before he visited Carnegie Mellon’s Mill 19 research facility, where he highlighted the importance of infrastructure investment and development. Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey, who attended Biden’s speech, emphasized the damage caused by the collapse, stating that “we were fortunate” that no one was killed. The collapse resulted in 10 injuries, but none that were life-threatening.

An investigation has been launched to determine what factors contributed to the collapse, but first responders echoed Mayor Gainey’s sentiments. In comments to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Officer Jeff LaBella said, “I thought there were going to be casualties for sure. I could not believe there weren’t any casualties when we got down there. I was expecting the absolute worst.”

Both Mayor Gainey and Governor Tom Wolf signed a proclamation of disaster emergency and within the week, the Biden administration approved $25 million from the recent infrastructure package to rebuild the collapsed bridge. But questions remain on the future of the bridge and its reconstruction as well as the future of infrastructure in Allegheny County.

Nearly 20% of Pennsylvania’s bridges are in poor condition, according to a review from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ACSE). Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) records show that in Allegheny County, there are 175 bridges that are in poor condition out of 1,582 bridges total (approximately 11%).

The Fern Hollow Bridge had a poor rating based on inspections from the Department of Transportation’s InfoBridge page, which contains records of bridge inspections and conditions. The substructure had a “satisfactory” rating while the deck and superstructure had a “poor” rating. Elements like the bridge’s railings and guardrail ends also didn’t meet the criteria, and the structural evaluation and deck geometry appraisals had “minimum tolerable” and “intolerable; high priority corrective action” ratings, respectively. City Councilor Corey O’Connor, who represents the district in which the bridge was located, told WESA that the inspection for the bridge in 2021 was conducted by a third-party contractor, but he could not remember who. Additionally, the bridge had been known to be in poor condition, but there was no indication of whether it needed to be shut down.

Jonathan Shimko, a previous ACSE president, clarified the purpose of the bridge ratings, saying that “engineers are risk-averse by nature” and that one poor element in a bridge can drive the bridge’s overall score. However, without commenting on what specifically led to the bridge’s deterioration, he pointed out that infrastructure failures are the culmination of a series of events rather than single actors or instances. He also made clear that it would be difficult to know the state of infrastructure without “money and investment to make sure we can maintain what we have built.”

In a news briefing, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy stated “certainly we do have a crisis for our aging infrastructure,” adding that this crisis is “something that our states and the entire U.S. government has to deal with.” NTSB is conducting the investigation into the bridge collapse, which could take 12-18 months.

Councilor O’Connor, in partnership with Mayor Gainey’s office, proposed the creation of an infrastructure commission to prevent future collapses like the Fern Hollow Bridge. O’Connor’s goal with the commission is to ensure “Pittsburghers get to where they need to go safely and securely” and to bring experts who can “provide guidance on our immediate infrastructure needs and prioritizing long-term strategic investment.” The commission is to be composed of 15 members, including city officials, labor organizers, residents with applicable experience, and construction industry professionals. In addition to the commission, O’Connor proposed legislation that would require regular reports for the city’s infrastructure. A vote is expected on these pieces of legislation in the coming week.

Initial steps for the bridge’s reconstruction are underway as construction crews and contractors assist the NTSB with its investigation while preparing for demolishing the bridge and clearing the area. Frick Park partially reopened on Jan. 31. Local officials have stated it will take at least a year to replace the collapsed bridge.