Fern Hollow Bridge Reopens

Just over a year ago the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, falling 100 feet into a ravine and taking five vehicles and one Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus with it. Nine people sustained non-life-threatening injuries, but the incident increased calls to improve Pittsburgh’s bridges, including by President Biden, who was in town to promote an infrastructure bill the day of the collapse.

The bridge has been rebuilt and is on its way to being fully functional again. Michelle Wright of WTAE reported that in late December of 2022, “the newly built bridge reopened to traffic with one lane open in each direction,” with plans to work through the spring to reopen all four lanes and “restore trail access under the bridge.”

This reopening comes after an ambitious plan to get the bridge back in use. Anya Sostek of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the rebuilding strategy was “special,” and “made possible by state and local emergency declarations” enabling a project that usually takes five years to be reopened in only 11 months. The project was covered by the federal government, offsetting a $23 million cost. This funding came from the bill Biden promoted the day of the collapse, and he even returned to track the progress of the bridge earlier in October.

However, progress on the Fern Hollow bridge has not translated to progress with the rest of Pittsburgh’s deteriorating infrastructure, especially other at-risk bridges. Mike Wereschagin of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed that after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey commissioned a report on the remaining Pittsburgh bridges, which found that there are 32 other city-owned bridges “rated in poor condition.” Problematically, he notes, none of these 32 bridges are scheduled to be rehabilitated in 2023 “under a key government program,” and only 11 of these bridges “are scheduled to be rehabilitated or replaced in the next five years under the Transportation Improvement Program.”

Wereschagin said that the problem is funding. Competing for limited funding makes it hard for all in-need programs to be added to the five-year plan. According to Wereschagin, “Inspectors downgraded the Fern Hollow Bridge’s condition to poor in 2011, [and] officials put it on a waitlist for public dollars that never arrived." Sometimes the city prioritizes projects in better condition to prevent them from deteriorating. In some cases, Wereschagin concluded, worse-off bridges will collapse before the funding gets to them.

When bridges collapse, sometimes the reason isn’t initially clear.

In the case of Fern Hollow, research into what caused the to bridge collapse is ongoing. AP News reported that engineers of the Fern Hollow bridge are “examining ‘multiple fractures’ found on the bridge’s legs.” Such analysis includes 3D scans of all four legs, as well as “mechanical and metallurgical tests” that will be compared to the bridge’s original design plan. This update comes after an initial review in February that did not find a cause but identified that the collapse started in the west end of the bridge. Additional information on the cause of the collapse should be released as data analysis concludes.