Six Truths Revealed by a Pittsburgh Bridge Collapse

A recent bridge failure in Pittsburgh revealed six truths about the current condition of bridges in the state of Pennsylvania and across the United States.

Instead of trying to explain what went wrong, which is what almost everyone does after a bridge failure, let’s take a look at what people who manage, inspect, build, design and maintain bridges should learn from the incident.

Bridge collapse: The backstory

Early Friday, January 28, the Fern Hollow Bridge that crosses Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania collapsed. The bridge is part of a major artery in the city. It was covered by approximately two inches of snow at the time of its failure. The actual cause of the collapse has not yet been determined, but some believe the relatively small amount of snow on it at the time may have contributed. The bridge was in such bad condition it was posted for weight restrictions and anything could have triggered it’s failure.

The 447 foot bridge was built in 1970 and has a rigid steel frame. There were four cars and a bus on the bridge at the time of the collapse. By coincidence, President Joe Biden was heading to Pittsburgh at the time of the collapse to discuss his historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes significant funding for new bridge construction work, maintenance and rehabilitation.

Interesting fact: Pittsburgh is home to more bridges than any other city in the world. This may have been a contributing factor to the collapse because officials in the city and state have been unable to keep up with the vast number of repairs currently required. It is hoped that the recently approved infrastructure spending will help with the city’s bridge repair and rehabilitation backlog.

Truth 1: Spending on infrastructure can’t happen fast enough

The ironic twist that Joe Biden was heading to Pittsburgh to discuss infrastructure funding hasn’t been lost on people in the bridge industry. 

Despite concerns that infrastructure spending could make the current inflationary economy in the United States worse, the money can’t be spent fast enough. The dire condition of bridges is putting people at risk. Add to this the fact that bridge failures and closures can have a major economic and quality of life impact on the communities surrounding them. States and municipalities must make plans as soon as possible to use their infrastructure dollars to improve and replace aging viaducts.

Truth 2: Bridges in poor condition can kill people

While no one was killed by the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, several people were injured and three had to be taken to the hospital. The limited number of injuries is because the collapse happened very early in the morning, when there was relatively little traffic on the bridge and no people walking or running on the paths below it. It’s likely that there would have been more injuries and fatalities if it had occurred later in the day, when the bridge was carrying heavier levels of traffic. On a typical day, more than 15,000 vehicles cross the structure.

It’s a warning call to bridge managers across the United States that they have to work fast to repair bridges that are in poor condition before lives are lost in another bridge failure.

Truth 3: Bridge failures impact the economy

The failed bridge in Pittsburgh is a major connector in the city. Until it is replaced, traffic will need to be diverted to other areas. This is expected to cause delays in people getting to work and school, slow deliveries to local businesses and make it challenging for people to get to stores and other business locations. All these things will have a negative impact on the Pittsburgh economy at a time when things are already shaky because of supply issues and inflation.

Truth 4: Bridge collapses are preventable

It was known that the Pittsburgh bridge was in poor condition. It earned an overall rating of poor when it was last inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in September 2021. The substructure and deck received a rating of four (poor) and the substructure received a six (satisfactory) rating.

If the lowest rating for any section of a bridge is greater than or equal to seven, the bridge is classified as being in good condition. Bridges rated five or six are fair. If the score is less than or equal to four, the classification is poor. 

Despite its poor score, officials had done nothing to improve the bridge. The last time significant maintenance took place was when a new deck surface was added a few years ago.

If officials had acted on the knowledge they had about the bridge sooner, the collapse may have been averted.

Truth 5: Under bridge utility protection is critical

A natural gas line that runs under the Fern Hollow Bridge was severed during the collapse. Many people in the area smelled gas after the incident and several were treated at the scene because of their exposure. Luckily, the gas was able to be turned off before a fire started or there was an explosion. 

Next time there’s a failure, things may not end as well. It’s why it is important that under bridge utility lines be installed properly and protected with solid fire blankets.

Truth 6: Modern technology makes post collapse cleanup faster 

The Fern Hollow Bridge failure is one of the first bridge collapses in the United States since drones and other electronic equipment became a common part of bridge inspection and maintenance work. 

Immediately after the collapse, officials were able to send in drones with cameras and other types of equipment to inspect the site. It’s expected that they will capture all the information needed to determine the cause of the collapse relatively quickly. Once that’s done, debris can be cleaned up and reconstruction work begin. 

It is expected that the use of drones will move up the beginning of the clean up and rebuilding process by several weeks or months, reducing the inconvenience and negative economic impact on people in the Pittsburgh area. Despite this, officials say a replacement structure may not be completed for a year. This will undoubtedly cause economic hardship for people in the immediate Pittsburgh area and beyond.

Fern Hollow Bridge collapse: The ultimate lesson

People who manage and work on bridges finally have what they’ve been wanting for decades: government funding for bridge and other infrastructure projects. They must use this funding fast to repair bridges that are in poor condition and build new ones so we never have another bridge collapse like the one in Pittsburgh.