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Student designers re-imagine Oakmont’s historic Hulton bridge

Credit: Harrison Apple/ Art Staff Credit: Harrison Apple/ Art Staff

Eight Carnegie Mellon students recently submitted a proposal to save the historic Hulton bridge in Oakmont, Pa. In the proposal, the heavily trafficked road bridge would be reverted to pedestrian and bike-friendly usage. The bridge, built in 1908 and one of the last remaining truss bridges in Pennsylvania, had been scheduled for demolition and replacement.

The students presented their plan to Oakmont residents and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) at the Oakmont Country Club at the end of last semester. Project member Gabriella Briffa, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, felt that the residents were receptive to the team’s presentation, especially because of the historical importance of the bridge. The bridge was named for Jonathan Hulton, one of the major landowners in Oakmont in the 19th century. In 1989, the Pennsylvania Legislature renamed the bridge to posthumously honor local representative Joseph Bonetto. In 1972, Bonetto had proposed a plan to build a bridge further upstream of the Allegheny, anticipating increased traffic loads for the Hulton due to the construction of the Allegheny Valley Expressway. Citizens of Oakmont were not aware of the renaming until plaques were mounted on the bridge. Local residents, unhappy with the change, stole the plaques.

Today, Carnegie Mellon students are taking a stand to save the historic Hulton bridge.

“We decided we really wanted to make an impact,” said Briffa, speaking about their goals for the project. “The idea was that we have something happen inside the community.”

In addition to Briffa, students responsible for the plan are Cassandra Abernathy, Dyanna Becker, Janice Chen, Andrew Ko, Zachary McCabe, Jon Nardolilli, and Christine Peters. They are juniors in the civil and environmental engineering department. The proposal was part of a semester project for the required junior projects course that gives the students an opportunity to design and complete full-semester projects.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Susan Finger connected the students with Carnegie Mellon alumnus Todd Wilson, who graduated from the civil and environmental engineering department in 2006. He explained that he has been working with students from this course for the past three years. Wilson currently works for the engineering and architectural design firm AECOM.

“If the bridge is to be transformed into a trail,” Wilson stated in an e-mail, “it will be a direct result of the students’ work.”

The group’s 85-page proposal detailed the historical, economic, and environmental impacts of revamping the bridge. The trail might also connect to the proposed Allegheny River Nine-Mile Run trail. The trail is a major component of Allegheny County’s master plan for regional advancement, called Allegheny Places.

The students estimated the pedestrian and bike bridge would bring an increase of $486,000 a year for Oakmont businesses. The bridge is also home to a variety of mussel species, one of which is being considered for addition to the endangered species list.
PennDOT Assistant District Executive for Design Cheryl Moon-Sirianni told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that she was “extremely impressed.”
“The students did good research ... but there are some obstacles,” said Moon-Sirianni to The Tartan.

She indicated that the bridge needs other updates, in addition to the students’ estimate of $300,000 in changes. That estimate was well under PennDOT’s estimate of $5 to $10 million.

The new bridge would also need to be redesigned so that its piers aligned with the piers of the existing bridge. Without this alignment, tugboats would be unable to pass under the bridges. Additionally, someone has to agree to purchase the bridge and take responsibility for upkeep. Moon-Sirianni explained that this is the largest hurdle in saving the bridge.

“What they presented is always a possibility,” she said, despite the challenges she outlined.

Currently, the narrow, two-lane bridge does not have capacity for rush-hour traffic. PennDOT has scheduled the construction of a new bridge to begin in the spring of 2012. The design includes the option for bike and pedestrian accommodations.