Pitt Expert Says Public Shouldn’t Panic About Other Bridges Collapsing
The professor of Civil and Environmental Engineerings says it will take billions more to reduce the risk of what happened over Frick Park on Friday.
The Friday morning collapse of the bridge carrying four lanes of Forbes Avenue traffic over Fern Hollow Creek in Frick Park could have been much worse, experts say.
The crash injured 10 and sent three people to the hospital, but fortunately, none of the injuries were life-threatening.
In this case, timing was everything.
“We dodged a bullet with this one, honestly, having really no significant injuries,” says Kent Harries, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “A couple hours later, there could be school buses on this bridge.”
The position of the bridge, too, was fortunate. When most bridges collapse, they collapse onto another structure, he says, whether it’s another roadway, train tracks or a navigable waterway. But the Frick Park structure fell into what was essentially a recreational area, empty because of the cold, snowy morning.
“There is no question in my mind that certainly the deterioration of the structure figures into this,” he says. “It’s entirely possible that … deterioration can get to the point where the bridge just gives up.”
He cites the collapse of the Lakeview Drive bridge onto I-70 in Washington County about 15 years ago. There were no deaths but a few injuries, and the cause of the incident was simply the age of the bridge.
“One could argue that that’s similar to the term ‘natural causes.’ Just the accumulation of deterioration. That could be the finding in this case, too,” he says.
But we likely won’t know for sure for a couple of months. There are tests to run and inspections to be made, and while it may seem like a long time to wait, Harries says that’s a rather quick estimate as far as these things tend to go.
A presidential visit
The collapse occurred only hours before President Biden was set to visit Pittsburgh to talk about his infrastructure law, and the ironic timing has stirred much discourse about the state of our roads, bridges and other vital systems — and whether or not the President’s bill will be enough.
“The infrastructure bill was a long time coming. It is a step in the right direction, but recognizing it is a step,” Harries says. “It was not funded to what the requests were, and the requests were nowhere near what was probably needed.”
The goal of the $1.2 trillion package, according to the White House, is to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails; expand access to clean drinking water; ensure universal access to high-speed internet; and more. It places special emphasis on repairing the weakened supply chains by making “long overdue” improvements to ports, airports, rails and roads.
Also included is $40 billion for bridge repair, replacement and rehabilitation — the single largest dedicated bridge investment since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
“The current bill was the best they could get through, and it’s obviously better than getting nothing through,” Harries says. “But this is just another wake-up call. It reminds us that we need a lot more, and we don’t have those resources.”
A failing grade
Harries calls what happened with the bridge “a symptom” of larger problems with not only the city’s infrastructure, but that of the country as a whole.
“Infrastructure is deteriorating; we all know that. We can all look around when we drive,” he says. This happens to be a rather dramatic illustration of that. When you look at the available information, certainly from reports at this point, this bridge was certainly in poor shape, there’s no question.”
10 People Escape Serious Injury in Forbes Avenue Bridge Collapse
Photo Gallery: Forbes Avenue Bridge Collapse
The bridge that collapsed on Friday had been rated as “poor,” according to PennDOT. A total of 80 local bridges and 95 state-owned bridges are listed as in poor condition in Pennsylvania, too.
Harries says there was nothing special about the bridge in Frick Park. It was built around 1970 — but the average age of bridges in the state was 54, as of 2017; the one over Fern Hollow Creek was only 51.
But the public shouldn’t panic about other bridges collapsing, he says.
“I don’t think there’s any kind of imminent danger to the traveling public. But with that said, we’re traveling on older and older infrastructure,” he says. “It’s the same imminent danger that your sewers will collapse and cause you problems for a while, or your water may go out for a while, or the electric grid. This just happens to grab people’s attention a little bit better.”
He also adds that the absence of the bridge is going to be disruptive, as Regent Square and Point Breeze are effectively severed from the rest of the city without it. While there are workarounds, the layout of the city makes them rather awkward, and the East End will likely see a multitude of disruptions to its traffic patterns while the structure undergoes repairs.
Harries worries that the infrastructure woes often go unnoticed. Bridges often fail silently until a crash, and there are plenty of other crises making ample noise.
“More like this will happen, regrettably. … We’re sort of inundated today with COVID, the polarization of the nation or the potential for a hot war in Europe. It sort of gets lost,” he says, also stressing that infrastructure is more than just roadways and utility lines.
“It is what allows our society to operate as a society,” he adds.
A lack of resources
The problem with critical infrastructure isn’t a lack of know-how or even a lack of effort from those who maintain the bridges. Instead, it’s a lack of resources.
“The solutions are there. There’s no technical problem. We know what needs to happen,” Harries says. “The impediments are the resources, obviously in terms of money.”
Time becomes part of the equation, too; even with an infinite amount of money, we can’t fix all of America’s old bridges overnight.
“You’re on a five, 10, 20-year plan,” he says.
Only a small part of the country’s GDP is currently spent on infrastructure. According to the New York Times, infrastructure spending would total $840 billion from 2022 to 2026. That’s about 3.45% of the GDP in 2022 alone, or 0.64 percent of the GDP over five years. The U.S. is ranked 13th in the world for the overall quality of our infrastructure.
“There is no technical impediment that I’m aware of to starting to address infrastructure issues in a meaningful way,” Harries adds. “We’ve been hopelessly underfunding infrastructure.”