The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge a year ago made clear to Pittsburghers that they couldn’t take the hundreds of bridges across the city for granted, but the months since then have also laid bare the difficulty of fixing so many aging crossings.
“The real work is getting the money,” said City Councilman Ricky Burgess, who represents part of the East End, at a meeting last year. “We need local money to get the projects shovel ready, to make them competitive. Because the reason that we don’t get more infrastructure money is that often those projects must be shovel ready. That means the city must put in money, the municipality has to put in the front money.”
City officials might not need to look far for at least some of that money. Gas tax funds — money specifically intended for local infrastructure that could potentially be used to jump-start work on some of the dozens of city bridges in rough condition — have been piling up for years in the city’s coffers.
Municipalities and counties across Pennsylvania began receiving a slice of its highest-in-the-nation gas tax in the 1950s, as the state sought to shift money toward local governments to help them pay for repairs to local roads, bridges, streets and other key infrastructure. Pittsburgh largely uses its annual allocation of nearly $8 million to pay for street lighting, wintertime road salt and a portion of Public Works employee salaries — and then stashes away the rest.
For years, the city regularly spent less than it received, and its gas tax account reached a high-water mark of nearly $12 million at the start of 2021. Even with the city starting to tap into the surplus to pay its electric bill for street lighting, it is still projected to have about $7.5 million left in the gas tax account at the end of this year.
Large infrastructure projects in the United States receive most of their funding from the federal and state governments, even when a bridge or other asset is locally owned. The city can potentially wait years to secure competitive federal and state dollars, using that money to pay for an entire project, start to finish. A way to speed up repair projects could be to pay for yearslong preliminary work on its own, using other funding sources such as gas tax dollars to reach “shovel ready” status, and then seek outside money for the actual construction costs.
It isn’t clear when the city last used its share of the gas tax to pay for local bridge repairs, even as many aging crossings need fixes, and other local governments use their funding to get construction projects moving.
After the Fern Hollow Bridge’s collapse, the city has been under scrutiny for deferred maintenance across its many bridges. Mayor Ed Gainey hired engineering firm WSP to help catch up on the backlog, and the firm has already delivered a report detailing the condition of each bridge with follow-up inspections recommended on several of them. The Charles Anderson Bridge, which carries the Boulevard of the Allies between Oakland and Schenley Park, received an “updated structural analysis” troubling enough to close it for at least four months while emergency repairs are completed.
Mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño told the Union Progress that it’s “possible in theory” to use the current surplus to expedite bridge projects, such as the emergency repairs on the Charles Anderson Bridge, but that could get complicated for a variety of reasons. She added that city officials re-evaluate every year how to best spend Pittsburgh’s gas tax money.
“One bad winter could greatly increase the cost we have for salt and throw the budget for the trust fund out of alignment,” Montaño said. “… These contingency funds may be considered as funding sources for the Charles Anderson Bridge — but we would have to wait for the full cost of those repairs to be known prior to making that decision.”
City Councilwoman Barbara Warwick — she represents the 5th District, which includes the Charles Anderson and Fern Hollow bridges — told the Union Progress that it’s a “valid question” to ask whether the gas tax money should have been used over the years to better maintain the city’s bridges.
“We have experienced truly how catastrophic it is when you don’t take care of your infrastructure,” she said. “We knew that in sort of a theoretical, but we got the real life experience with Fern Hollow.”
“We should always be looking at the most efficient, effective ways to be using our dollars,” Warwick continued, “but certainly also keeping in mind that these big, big projects, in terms of repairing and replacing the bridges, are being paid for mostly not by city dollars.”
Pittsburgh's financial watchdog, Controller Michael Lamb, was unavailable for an interview.
City officials don’t have to look far away for different models on how to spend gas tax dollars. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, typically receives about $1.7 million each year and puts nearly all the funds toward bridge construction projects.
On the other side of the state, both Bucks and Chester counties also put their money toward bridge projects. Philadelphia, the state’s largest city, puts its gas tax money toward maintenance and repair of roadways and traffic signals, as well as street cleaning and electric costs for street lighting.
John Brenner — he heads the Pennsylvania Municipal League, an advocacy group in Harrisburg for local governments — told the Union Progress that it is ultimately up to local officials how they want to spend their gas tax funding. Brenner, citing his experience as a mayor of York, said municipalities often use the money for summer street repaving and winter snow removal.
“It really depends on the local municipality’s plans and their short list of priorities,” he said. “In my experience, the officials we’ve worked with from cities, boroughs and townships across the state, that these folks are very creative and try to solve problems and stretch those tax dollars as far as they possibly can.”
Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at email@example.com.