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The Bridge Crisis in America

March 16, 2022

At the end of January, the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed, injuring ten. About three weeks later, the arches of a pedestrian bridge in North Carolina collapsed less than a year after construction. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), one in three U.S. bridges either needs repairs or to be replaced.  

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse is still being investigated and it may take upwards of 12-18 months until a full report of what occurred is issued. One of the potential causes may be that the bridge design is considered “non-redundant,” meaning if the paths to disperse stress place on the bridge fail, the entire bridge fails, reports Margaret J. Krauss for WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR station. 

University of Pittsburgh professor of structural engineering Kent Harries talked with Krauss and shared that, “…non-redundant bridges face restrictions on traffic flow, more stringent inspection guidelines, and more extensive inspection.”  

The Fern Hollow Bridge had annual inspections, having been rated in “poor condition” for the last 10 years. Pennsylvania ranks 5th in the nation in percentage of structurally deficient (SD) bridges and 2nd in terms of largest number of bridges in poor condition on ARTBA’s Bridge Report. Every state, including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, has multiple bridges that are considered SD or in poor condition. 

President Joe Biden arrived in Pittsburgh for a previously scheduled event at Carnegie Mellon University just hours after the bridge collapse.  

“Biden promoted the bipartisan infrastructure law, which he said will allocate $1.6 billion to Pennsylvania for repairing and restoring bridges,” report Quint Forgey and Claire Rafford for Politico. “The law, Biden said, is also the largest investment in bridges since former President Dwight D. Eisenhower started the interstate highway system.” 

Home to more than 400 bridges, the city of Pittsburgh has the most bridges of any city in the world, and with the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse serves as an example of just how important it is that bridges be maintained and updated appropriately.  

According to ARTBA, “The government classifies a bridge as ‘structurally deficient’ if any one of the following bridge components are rated less than or equal to 4 (in poor or worse condition): 

  • Deck condition 

  • Superstructure condition 

  • Substructure condition 

  • Culvert condition.” 

Over 43,000 U.S. bridges that are still in active use are considered SD and in poor condition. While this number has decreased from 47, 619 in 2017, ARTBA estimates it would take 30 years to fix all of the nation’s SD bridges. 

In addition to the SD bridges, an additional 180,000 bridges are in need of some level of repair.  

What is being done to ensure that collapses such as the Fern Hollow Bridge don’t continue to occur? As previously mentioned, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law last November, provides states with additional resources to make improvements to infrastructure, including bridges. Under the act, more than $27.5 billion is being issued to states for bridge repair over the next five years. Additionally, a discretionary bridge program will provide $12.5 billion for projects through 2026.  

“State DOTs can also use federal formula highway fund programs, such as the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, for bridge improvements,” states the ARTBA report. 

In the Pittsburgh area, steps at the city-level for addressing the city’s bridges are also being implemented. 

“Mayor Ed Gainey and City Councilor Corey O’Connor, whose district includes the area around Fern Hollow Bridge, introduced legislation to create an infrastructure commission,” reports Krauss. “That body will recommend how best to maintain and improve city-owned assets.” 

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