The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh renewed calls for upgrading America’s infrastructure from local leaders to President Joe Biden.
After the collapse, the conversation shifted to focus on the conditions of the bridges that western Pennsylvanians drive on every day.
An analysis of local and state bridge data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) found that while only 13% of the bridges and culverts in Butler County are rated poor – the same rating as the Fern Hollow Bridge – more than half only received a rating of fair.
PennDOT gives bridges an overall rating based on the lowest score from three categories: the deck, superstructure and substructure. While the deck refers to the surface part of the bridge that traffic use, the superstructure and substructure encompass the supporting elements of the bridge.
In Slippery Rock Borough, the worst rated bridge is a 441 square foot concrete slab that sits a few feet above a waterway leading to Wolf Creek on State Route 258, right before the entrance to Slippery Rock Area Elementary School. Just a few feet away, a similarly designed bridge next to Parklane Drive is in poor condition, according to the data.
Those travelling south down Interstate 79 (I-79) to Pittsburgh will travel over five bridges that have a poor rating, many due to the condition of the deck.
Still, over half of the bridges in the immediate area of Slippery Rock University (SRU) are in good condition.
Compared to Allegheny County, which includes the City of Bridges, the percentages of poor and fair rated structures in Butler County all vary within a few percentage points of each other. Despite that, Allegheny County has more than triple the number of bridges in poor condition compared to Butler County.
While accounting for only 11% of the total bridges, Allegheny County’s more than 170 are rated poor.
On Jan. 28, when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, President Joe Biden was scheduled to arrive in Pittsburgh to discuss the need to invest in America’s infrastructure. During his speech, the president said his plan would provide $1.6 billion to Pennsylvania earmarked for bridges. The state will receive $327 million in 2022 just for bridge repairs, Biden said.
“We’ve got to get on with it. We’ve got to move. The next time, we don’t need headlines saying that someone was killed when the next bridge collapses,” Biden said.
The report states the early morning collapse caused the bridge to fall more than 100 feet into Frick Park, taking with it four passenger vehicles and a Port Authority of Allegheny County bus.
Immediately after the collapse a fifth passenger vehicle drove off the east end of the bridge, landing on its roof. From the vehicles, ten people were injured. No one was reported to be under the bridge at the time of the collapse.
According to the NTSB report, “certain areas of the welded steel girders were identified as being fracture critical,” but so far, no fractures have been found in those areas.