PennDOT's proposed design for the new Fern Hollow Bridge. Image courtesy of PennDOT.

While the Fern Hollow Bridge is important to the people who travel across it for work, school and just to get around town, a timely reconstruction is essential to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

That’s because PennDOT will need the Fern Hollow Bridge to be a detour for I-376 Parkway East traffic when the highway is closed to replace the bridges over Commercial Street, just east of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, in 2025.

On March 8, Mayor Ed Gainey, joined by elected officials, state representatives and PennDOT officials, gathered at the site to announce that the state had a preliminary design to replace the bridge that collapsed on Jan. 28.

The plan for a “three-span, continuous composite, prestressed concrete, I-beam with integral abutments” went over with the public about as well as the collapsed bridge now goes over Fern Hollow.

Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, says the new bridge design “is like you’re escaping the city in order to sit under an overpass on I-80.” Rendering courtesy of PennDOT.
Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, says the new bridge design “is like you’re escaping the city in order to sit under an overpass on I-80.” Rendering courtesy of PennDOT.

Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, says the new bridge should be in keeping with the spirit of the Frick Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“You’re supposed to be able to escape the city, but this bridge is like you’re escaping the city in order to sit under an overpass on I-80,” he says.

“There are examples of bridges built in parks that are sensitive to the park itself,” Falcone says, adding that the rendering released by PennDOT is not one of them.

PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan says PennDOT is aware of the historic designation and is trying to make sure the new bridge does not take away from the qualities that make the park eligible for the listing on the national registry.

“It should be noted that the collapsed bridge was not historic and it was not a contributing structure to the [national registry] listed Frick Park,” Cowan writes in an email. “One contributing structure of Frick Park is immediately adjacent to the project area: the Forbes Gatehouse. Efforts will be made to protect the structure during construction activities.”

A bike lane would be part of the new bridge. Image courtesy of PennDOT.

Cowan adds that “Factors such as material availability, delivery times and cost were considered when selecting the bridge type.”

If the bridge requires specialty steel, for items such as arches, pandemic-related shortages could delay the project by 18 months.

“Additionally, significant delays to reconstruction could jeopardize the federal funding and impact the 14,000 motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians that use the bridge daily,” Cowan says.

Council Member Corey O’Connor, whose district includes the portion of the park where the bridge collapsed, says PennDOT is designing and managing the project and will own the bridge during construction. Then the department will give the completed bridge to the city.

Cowan says PennDOT is working with consulting parties including the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, Department of Public Works and Department of City Planning, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

He says there will be a public comment section added to PennDOT’s website for the Fern Hollow Bridge project.

Architect Walt Haim doesn’t think a lot of PennDOT’s proposal. Image by Walt Haim.
Architect Walt Haim doesn’t think a lot of PennDOT’s proposal. Image by Walt Haim.

On March 1, Walt Haim, an architect who lives in Bloomfield, posted sketches of possible bridges for the park on Twitter.

The worst option, he says, was a drawing of what one of the bridges built by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the Southern Beltway would look like in the park. He also drew more fanciful versions of bridges, such as a suspension bridge, a bridge with concrete arches, and the most outrageous, a Frick Park version of the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy, which is lined with shops across its span.

The bridge design released by PennDOT “looks rushed,” Haim says. “A lot of it is precast and off the shelf. A lot of people will say it looks ugly and Brutalist,” referring to the concrete style of architecture that marks Posvar Hall at the University of Pittsburgh.

But, Haim is empathetic to the speed with which PennDOT had to design the new bridge and the construction constraints.

A Frick Park version of the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy. Image by Walt Haim.

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed on Jan. 28, just hours before President Joe Biden came to Pittsburgh to talk about the need to improve infrastructure across the country. Biden visited the bridge, with vehicles still strewn across the downed span, and promised that the federal government would pay for it. That federal funding is what PennDOT is using to build the new overpass.

While the federal government will pay $25.3 million for the Fern Hollow Bridge, other structures are going to have to be repaired on the city’s tab.

For instance, the South Negley Avenue Bridge over the East Busway and railroad tracks are city projects.

The Negley bridge received a good deal of attention after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed because part of the steel superstructure that holds up the sidewalk has rusted out and is being reinforced by wood beams.

In a meeting with the Shadyside Action Coalition, Eric Setzler, chief engineer for the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said the original project to replace the bridge was studied in 2013. The bridge, as it is now, is 20 feet, 8 inches above the tracks. For the PA Public Utility Commission to approve a new bridge there, it has to be 22 feet above the tracks to allow for double-stacked trains.

A bridge idea that screams Pittsburgh. Image by Walt Haim.

Currently, the South Negley Avenue Bridge is rated in poor condition because the stone substructure, which holds the steel trusses, is worn. But, Setzler noted, the bridge was last inspected in November and does not have a vehicle weight restriction.

The sidewalk is currently closed on the east side of the bridge and Port Authority is rebuilding the ramp from South Negley Avenue to the busway.

Setzler said that if the project to rebuild the bridge is started now, it will take a year to complete the engineering, and another year to determine the final design and to put rebuilding the span out to bid, so that construction could start in 2024 and finish in 2025.

“I think I am probably not alone thinking that hearing a date of 2025 for a construction period for something that is rated poor now is scary,” Carol McGinty of Shadyside, one of the officers of Shadyside Action Coalition said after the plans were laid out.

“We all understand that these kinds of things take a long time, to get the funding, to get the planning, to prioritize all of the other things that we have on the plate. But I do think that it’s concerning that it could take that long. It has a poor rating and we know what could happen with a poor rating.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel...