Pittsburgh is a great city. You’re probably familiar with its association with three rivers, but may not understand why. In short, the city arose where two rivers (the Allegheny to the north and Monongahela to the south) merged to form the Ohio River. The Ohio then goes on to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. So the junction of those rivers became an excellent point from which to manage commerce.
Today, downtown Pittsburgh sits at the point where the rivers merge, on a sort of misshapen triangle of land. It’s really spectacular, with high hills across the river that provide an exceptional view of the city’s core. But it also means that, particularly in the modern economy, there are physical constraints that don’t exist elsewhere: the rivers, lots of hills. Like, on the map below, see Frick Park? It’s a gorgeous space, but it also limits how much people can move easily from the heavily populated eastern side of the city into downtown.
But people make do. My sister lives in the eastern side of the city and walks her dog in Frick Park. There is pretty good public transit and some often-clogged parkways.
And there are lots of bridges. Pittsburgh is called the City of Bridges.
The federal government, as you would expect, tracks the condition of those bridges. So, in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of bridges that are evaluated as being in “good” condition.
Far more are judged to be in “fair” condition.
And a perhaps concerning numbers are in “poor” condition.
That includes the bridge in that red circle. Early Friday morning, that bridge, traversing Frick Park, collapsed.
Notice that it sits at the end of one of the few lines you can easily pick out on the map, a road, Forbes Avenue, that is a major thoroughfare into and out of downtown. It’s one of the few non-highway roads allowing passage past the barrier formed by the park in that area. Until the bridge is replaced — certainly a years-long project — all of the traffic it carried will be rerouted elsewhere.
In other words, we have here a bridge that was understood by the federal government to be in bad condition that was also an important point of possible failure for a major city. And now it has collapsed down into Frick Park, thankfully without any loss of life.
For years, probably decades, elected officials have been talking about the urgent need to improve our infrastructure. In part, this is simply a function of life cycles: America was a young country that invested heavily in infrastructure, and now we’re an older country, meaning much of the infrastructure is, too. But the failure to pass legislation aimed at improving or overhauling those aging bridges and roads was also just a political failure, a sort of eh-we’ll-get-to-it attitude.
Bridge collapses happen. This one is personal to me because it’s a bridge I know, that I’ve crossed enough times for it to be memorable, that my sister and mother have crossed countless times as well. But it is also a warning about how this understood risk can suddenly become a crisis.
The federal government’s data suggest that bridges in a condition equivalent to or worse than the collapsed one in Pittsburgh are fairly common. A review of the most recent report indicates that more than 7,500 bridges in the 50 states and D.C. are both in poor condition and rated lower or the same on the four main measures of condition, including the bridge deck condition and its supporting structure. Only Iowa has more such bridges than Pennsylvania.
The table below shows three metrics for each state and the District of Columbia: the number of bridges in equivalent or worse condition than the one that collapsed in Pittsburgh, the percent of bridges rated poor (of those rated good, fair or poor) and the average value of the lowest-rated element of each bridge. In other words, if the deck is rated 5 for a bridge and the superstructure 8, the lowest-rated element would be 5.
President Biden was already slated to be in Pittsburgh on Friday, to give a speech focused on infrastructure. This bridge collapse offers a useful, if unwelcome, demonstration of the need for the recently passed infrastructure law to be implemented.
What I and probably many people in Pittsburgh will be hoping to hear is when the bridge will be replaced. Not to mention when those 7,500 other bridges in worse condition will be repaired, so that the next bridge that collapses isn’t the one you drive over every day to get where you need to go.