Even though construction has already started on the replacement for the Fern Hollow Bridge, discussions are still ongoing about the design of the structure.
One thing is for sure: The bridge will be a four-lane concrete structure with a sidewalk and bike path separated on the south side of the bridge and a shared sidewalk and bike path on the north side.
But Ken Doyno, an architect who lives in Park Place just next to the bridge, has presented options that he says will not slow the bridge reconstruction but will make it safer and more accessible.
Those suggestions, though, were not brought up as part of a regular public process because there wasn’t one. Instead, residents living near the bridge have lobbied the city, Wilkinsburg and local organizations to pass resolutions calling for PennDOT to include their input.
Even as the neighbors ask for a design that is safer for users than the old bridge that collapsed on Jan. 28, contractors are drilling for the new foundations in Fern Hollow.
The reason that public input took a back seat to getting the bridge project started was that the city needs to restore a bridge over Fern Hollow as soon as possible, Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak says.
“We recognize that this is a major disruption to you all both in the normal ways you lived your life using that bridge or in the ways in which it has diverted traffic,” he says, adding that the loss of the bridge has affected the ability of the city’s fire, police and emergency medical services departments to respond to the neighborhoods east of the bridge or to provide mutual aid emergency services to Wilkinsburg.
Pawlak says the expedited process of getting a bridge up as quickly as possible “does come with a tradeoff that the normal procedures, both publicly consultative and legal that we would normally deploy in a bridge reconstruction or restoration project, had to be expedited. So through an emergency declaration made by Gov. [Tom] Wolf and Mayor [Ed] Gainey we have waived some aspects of the design review and the public consultation process.”
He also says the choice of building with precast concrete was a function of the supply chain disruptions that have limited the availability of steel.
Donyo says he understands that the city has to live with the design, which PennDOT describes as a “three-span, continuous composite, prestressed concrete, I-beam with integral abutments,” but he suggests three changes.
One change would extend the Undercliff Trail through Frick Park so that instead of coming up to the bridge on the north side, it would run under the bridge and connect to the grassy knoll and playground area that are just south of Forbes Avenue.
When asked about the idea in an email, PennDOT spokesperson Steve Cowan replied “the Design/Build Team is investigating potential trail connections under the bridge and is working with trail design specialists to see what is feasible with the extreme slopes that exist under the Fern Hollow Bridge.”
Another idea presented by Doyno, which he says was inspired by State Sen. Jay Costa, is to install pedestrian crosswalks and signals on the west/Squirrel Hill side of the bridge. The sidewalk only exists on the north side of Forbes so a crosswalk would allow pedestrians access to the south side where the gatehouse and trails are.
Cowan says, “The team is also investigating adding a potential mid-block crossing at the western end of the bridge but there are sight distance concerns due to the curvature of Forbes Avenue with vehicles headed in the eastbound direction, so the team is evaluating what options would allow the crossing and continue to keep the safety of the pedestrians at the forefront.”
Doyno also asks that the city extend two of the supports out from the bridge so that a multimodal trail bridge could carry pedestrians and bicycles from the Clayton trails on the west side of the park across Fern Hollow to the playground and ballfields on the east side of the bridge.
When asked about that idea, Cowan did not provide an answer.
At the same time officials were talking to residents about the design of the bridge, the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse received more national exposure when it was the subject of a clue on the game show Jeopardy:
“You’ll have to wait to cross the Forbes avenue bridge in this city. It collapsed in 2022 just before a presidential visit about infrastructure.”
The contestant, who had chosen the clue as a Daily Double, could not name the city.