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City of (Falling) Bridges

My hometown, Pittsburgh, has become a joke of sorts. It began when a bus fell into a sinkhole in the middle of downtown, and it got worse when the Fern Hollow bridge collapsed, sending another bus on an unwanted plunge. The events have been commemorated in any number of memes. The humor is lost, however, when you consider that there are nearly forty-four thousand structurally deficient bridges in the US with 167.5 million daily crossings.

The news is not all bad. I had the fortune or misfortune to get a front-row seat to the Fern Hollow bridge collapse. My house is within five hundred feet of the Fern Hollow bridge. The bridge collapsed on January 28, 2022, and partially reopened on December 22, 2022—a record under any circumstances, but even more impressive with the supply chain constraints around the world right now. While I have to admit that the scale of machinery awoke my inner child, I marveled most at the scope and complexity of the logistics and precision required for the rebuilding.

Though the rush to get the bridge back may have missed some opportunities to rebuild in a way that is better for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, it was critical to restore a vital link within the city. Unfortunately, this bridge was the tragic (but not fatal) tip of an iceberg in my city, and in the country. With the historic investment in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I hope that this wake-up call yields action before a fatal collapse occurs.

The state of bridge infrastructure in America varies. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in 2020, over fifty-six thousand bridges in the US were classified as “structurally deficient,” which means that one or more of the key bridge elements are in poor or worse condition. Additionally, over 40 percent of US bridges were built before 1970 and have surpassed their fifty-year design life. This means that many bridges in the US are in need of repair or replacement. On the other hand, some bridges have been recently built or renovated and are in good condition. Overall, the state of bridge infrastructure in America is a concern, and significant investment is needed to improve and maintain the safety and integrity of the country’s bridges. It is a national problem, not just a Pittsburgh problem.


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