Dec. 22 update: The Fern Hollow Bridge opened earlier than expected — on Thursday afternoon.
If Mother Nature cooperates, the new Fern Hollow Bridge will open to traffic by the end of the day Friday, officials announced Wednesday.
But with rain, snow and ice — plus a major blast of bitter cold air — scheduled to reach Western Pennsylvania early Thursday, that will be yet another challenge in the emergency effort to replace the bridge that links Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze neighborhoods via Forbes Avenue.
“We hope late Friday,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, after federal, state and local officials celebrated the project with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Wednesday morning.
“Mother Nature isn’t going to help us the next couple of days.”
Contractors still have to complete installation of the black steel railings on one side of the bridge and place safety barriers so it can accommodate one lane of traffic in each direction while work continues into the spring.
The 447-foot structure replaces the bridge that collapsed Jan. 28 into Frick Park, injuring 11 people.
Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday called the collapse “a surreal reminder” of bridge and infrastructure problems across the country. Emergency efforts to rebuild the bridge in 11 months, though, was an example of “the great things we can do together” with government cooperation at all levels.
PennDOT built the new bridge for the city because of its experience handling emergency projects and will turn it over to the city for maintenance when construction is finished.
The state received a $25.3 million emergency federal grant to replace the bridge.
Because of the emergency declaration, contractor Swank Construction started building the new bridge while consultant HDR continued to design the rest of the structure. Normal circumstances require months of permitting and full design before a project goes out for bids, then construction starts a couple of months later, so the whole process can take three years or more.
That design-build procedure also allowed officials to adjust the specifications for the project along the way if some materials weren’t available immediately because of supply-chain issues. From the start, the project called for precast concrete beams because it would take too long to get steel beams.
Pete Douglass, general superintendent of the project for Swank, said the company “loved the challenge” of trying to complete the project in less than a year. Working with the emergency declaration was a big help, he said.
“Just with anything we needed, that let us get to the front of the line, “ he said. “[The suppliers] knew that we needed to get this done.”
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who represents the area, said he didn’t expect the bridge to be replaced so quickly.
“I am clearly delighted and surprised that we could be here in less than a year,” Frankel said. “It proves if you get the right group of people together what you can do. No better symbol of that than the Fern Hollow Bridge.”
When it is completed, the bridge will have two lanes of traffic in each direction, plus a bicycle lane and a shared walking trail linking with Frick Park. Before the pandemic, the bridge carried 40,000 vehicles a day.
Work to restore the park area under the bridge also is expected to continue into the spring.