Rendering of Brilliant Branch Bridge Envisioning Study, AE7 Planners and Architects. Courtesy AE7 Planners and Architects

Imagine riding your bike across the Allegheny River on an old railroad bridge landscaped with wildflowers and shrubs, and dotted with art installations. The bridge connects you to separate trails running through Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, but it also invites you to linger high above the water on walkways overlooking Downtown.

Might this dream become a reality?

The city’s proposed “GAP to the Point” bike path is still under review, and an updated Bike Plan for Pittsburgh will debut this fall, but D.J. Bryant, a designer at AE7 Planners and Architects, proposes an ambitious new idea—the Brilliant Branch Rail-to-Trail—that would increase connectivity and access to safe, affordable transportation options for several communities in the city. After all, of the 1,298 miles of streets in Pittsburgh, there are only 40 miles of on-street bike infrastructure and 31.2 miles of off-street trails.

The timing could be just right for a project like this. With links to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the U.S. Bicycle Route 50 underway, Pittsburgh is attracting some of the $71.3 billion dollars that bicycle tourism contributes to the U.S. economy annually, according to a 2012 study by the U.S. Outdoor Industry Association.

While many look at Pittsburgh’s aging and abandoned infrastructure with nostalgia or disdain, Bryant sees untapped opportunity. He has drawn up a compelling plan for the defunct Brilliant Branch railroad extending from Aspinwall to East Liberty to spark a conversation about how to draw on the region’s rich heritage to meet the needs of the 21st -century city. We caught up with him to get some details on what he envisions.

Brilliant Branch Bridge, 2016. Photo by DJ Bryant.

Are you a bicyclist?

I am, yes. That is how I commute to and from work every day. I’m lucky because a majority of my route to work is on protected trails. I live in the Mexican War Streets, so I bike through Allegheny Commons Park, down by the stadiums to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, up to the 31st Street Bridge, and to my office in the Strip District. I typically log about 24 miles per week biking to and from work.

How did you get the idea for the Brilliant Branch Rail-to-Trail? 

I moved to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, Georgia, which had a big influence on this idea. My apartment in Atlanta was directly adjacent to the Beltline, a former branch line railroad that was converted into a pedestrian trail. The project is similar to the High Line in New York City, but instead of being a linear park, the Beltline is a 22-mile loop that links together all of the city’s parks. The City of Atlanta struggled for quite some time about what to do with the defunct Beltline railroad corridor after the collapse of the railroad industry in the 1970s. Today, the Beltline trail has been a major boon for the city. I don’t think anyone fully realized just how much Atlanta would fall in love with such an amenity. I used to commute along the Beltline and it was sometimes a little precarious dodging around all of the joggers, bikers and dog walkers.

I recently found out about the Brilliant Branch Bridge by accident while I was engaged in a master planning process for an adjacent project. After speaking with neighbors in the area, we found out that the bridge was largely unused by the railroad. It seems like too great an amenity to let rot away. My mentor, Jim O’Toole, kept saying, ‘You should look into this, you should make this your project.’ I approached my boss at work with the idea and he graciously allowed me to conduct an envisioning study for the project.

What is the Brilliant Branch and how do you think it might compare to the Beltline and the High Line?

In 1904, the Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVRR) built the Brilliant Branch line so that freight trains could bypass the passenger train traffic coming in and out of Downtown Pittsburgh. The branch line stretches from Aspinwall, in the north, to Bakery Square and Homewood, in the south, where it connects to the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia mainline. The line has been out of use since the Azcon Metals scrapyard on the outskirts of Aspinwall ceased functions around 2010.

On paper, our proposal is really quite simple. We propose filling in the gaps along the Allegheny River Trail network, connecting Downtown Pittsburgh to Aspinwall (on both sides of the river), converting the Brilliant Branch Bridge into a pedestrian bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, and extending the trail down the Brilliant Branch railroad into East Liberty. The Brilliant Branch Bridge would connect the trails to each other and bring a protected bike path through Homewood, Larimer, East Liberty, Highland Park, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, Aspinwall, Sharpsburg, Etna, Millvale and Lawrenceville, using infrastructure that’s already there.

This expanded trail network would not only improve connectivity between these communities, it would give cyclists protected routes with little vehicular interaction and improved safety for bicyclists. It would also help to bolster and accentuate much of the investment that has occurred in and around Bakery Square as well as offer these communities alternative modes of transportation and access.

Rendering of Brilliant Branch Bridge as a bike and pedestrian path as envisioned by AE7. Courtesy AE7 Planners and Architects.

I’ve always wondered about the overgrown train tracks running high above Washington Boulevard. What do you propose, exactly? Your renderings show the Brilliant Branch Bridge becoming a spectacle that could be quite a draw.

We conducted this study to begin a dialogue about how Pittsburgh can begin to reconsider its relationship to the rivers, the industrial past and the city’s changing transportation needs. We hope this study catalyzes further discussions and design proposals.

Sarah Rafson is the founder of Point Line Projects, an editorial and curatorial agency for architecture and design. She serves on the board of ArchiteXX, an advocacy organization for women in architecture.