Fern Hollow, for now
Almost exactly a year ago, when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed into the ravine of Frick Park, I wrote an opinion piece for Forum called “The Gap: What the loss of a bridge really means.” I wrote that piece in what you might call a tizzy; I was feeling a lot of emotions, mostly anger. My path from school to home had just been complicated enormously, and all people around me seemed to want to talk about was how President Biden could have died in the collapse (a myth that has been debunked by the fact that his destination in Pittsburgh that day was nowhere near the bridge). Amongst other assertions, I made the prediction that the bridge would not be replaced for a long time.
As I drove over the brand new, now-opened Fern Hollow Bridge this past winter break, taking my usual curves down the long stretch of Forbes Avenue at the standard five or 10 miles per hour above the speed limit, I wondered, “Was I wrong?”
There has been a lot of chatter in Pittsburgh over the past year about the building of the new bridge. Most specifically, the transportation of a number of literally humongous (150-foot) “pre-stress” concrete and steel beams through the city caught a lot of attention. Somehow, Swank Construction, the firm responsible for the Fern Hollow Bridge, brought nearly 20 of these 100-ton beams essentially from Altoona — where their manufacturer PennStress lives — through the windy Swissvale streets to Regent Square. As a fun fact, PennStress is also responsible for a memorial at the Flight 93 crash site just east of Pittsburgh.
All of this seemed very mystical to Pittsburgh residents, who were used to the traditional steel-arch, takes-37-years-to-build bridge style that predominates our landscape. To most, it seemed that Swank and The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) were doing everything in their power to have the bridge up as quickly as possible. I cannot pretend that I do not believe that. And although I have a lot of empathy for the struggles and inconveniences that the bridge closing caused for Pittsburgh residents — I myself took a number of hour-long 61B bus rides that were previously only 20 minutes — I also understand that rushing the reconstruction of the bridge would only lead to further troubles.
Surprisingly, this is actually the Fern Hollow Bridge’s third life. The original bridge was built in 1901, then torn down in 1972 and rebuilt the year after. A construction worker was purportedly killed in the demolition of the original bridge; maybe the 2022 collapse was his work from beyond the grave.
Anyways, considering that nobody was really talking about the possibility of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsing before it did, it’s natural for there still to be doubts about whether this latest iteration of the bridge will last. I would go as far as to hypothesize that if the collapse hadn’t, by sheer coincidence, been of national attention, there might not have been such an incredible rush, pomp, and circumstance about getting it back up. PennDOT purportedly brushed off requests for input by groups of concerned residents, like cyclists. It also seems that they delayed some finishing touches until after the official opening, like pedestrian walkways and a planned art exhibition. Also, not all of the lanes are actually open to drivers. Given all that’s happened, that might be enough to make any Pittsburgher a little suspicious.
It was enough to make me hold my breath when I drove over for the first time, and also sort of the second time. I thought about all the things we take for granted; maybe the integrity of giant concrete beams is something I could consider adding to that list.