Pittsburgh’s Swinburne Bridge, which carries Frazier Street over railroad tracks and Saline Street to Four Mile Run, has been marked as a “temporary structure” since last fall due to repairs in progress on one of the bridge’s supports. It is the latest headache for the 600-foot span, which carries roughly 6,000 vehicles each day and was built in 1915.

Emily Bourne, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, told the Union Progress that the city directed contractor Michael Facchiano Contracting Inc. to install temporary shoring at two bearings following an October 2022 inspection of the bridge. Work on the bearings, which connect the bridge deck to its supports, was performed at a cost of $36,268.

“This is an interim fix while we work with the contractor to design and fabricate permanent repairs for the two bearings,” Bourne said, adding that the permanent repairs will be completed by the end of next month.

Only five other crossings in Allegheny County share the “temporary structure” designation with the Swinburne Bridge. It has been rated by inspectors in poor condition, the worst ranking, for about 15 years, and will get its next regular inspection in April.

The bridge will be fully replaced over the next few years, following rehabilitation projects in 1989 and 2013. Final design on the replacement bridge will wrap up late next year, but Bourne said it isn’t clear yet when construction will begin due to a rehabilitation project scheduled to take place around the same time for the nearby Charles Anderson Bridge.

Kent Harries, a civil engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Union Progress that bearings are crucial components of a bridge and typically get “significant” attention during inspections. He added that it’s good the city took action, noting that a bearing issue several years ago caused an 8-inch drop of the Birmingham Bridge.

“There’s not a concern with something being identified as a temporary component. And in fact, in some ways, I would argue that that’s going to put more attention on the structure, whether it’s by inspectors or whatnot,” he said. “In a kind of weird way, you can almost argue it’s slightly safer. … People are going to look at it a little bit more closely, and resources are being found to address a problem.”

Harries added that the city making repairs to the bearings shows the inspection regimen “working exactly the way it should.”

“The idea of an inspection increment, where it’s six months or two years, is that that increment is smaller, or is small enough, that we can capture a new problem before it really causes significant damage,” he said.

Hota GangaRao, an engineering professor who directs the Constructed Facilities Center at West Virginia University, told the Union Progress that he thinks the city has broadly acted “in line with what ought to be done from the public safety point of view.” He added that a bridge designated as a temporary structure, to him, represents a downgrade in status.

“The only thing I can say without looking at it is simply the public demanding that the bridge be inspected a bit more often than six months,” he said. “Now that the alarm has been raised, it’s good to be inspecting a bit more frequently.”

City Councilwoman Barbara Warwick, whose 5th District includes the bridge, told the Union Progress that she values transparency but can understand why the city did not alert the public to the repairs.

“If everything’s safe and the work is being done, and it’s not affecting the neighbors … I could see why the city on its long, long to-do list would not have reached out just as an FYI,” she said.

Warwick said the repairs fit into a new attitude where “in a post-Fern Hollow world, we are taking no chances.”

“We’re putting in the money to make this temporary fix now, just to be 1,000% sure that everything is fine,” she said. “As we’ve seen with Charles Anderson, if the engineers say close it down, we close it down. But that is not the case with the Swinburne Bridge.”

After the Fern Hollow Bridge’s collapse last year, Pittsburgh officials have been under scrutiny for deferred maintenance across the city’s many bridges.

Mayor Ed Gainey hired engineering firm WSP last year 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.

WSP recommended in its report that the Swinburne Bridge’s right sidewalk be closed due to “structural concerns of sidewalk supporting members.” Bourne said the city ultimately decided not to close the sidewalk as “our engineers have advised that it is less safe to close the sidewalk than to leave it open for pedestrian access.”

Bourne said the city is monitoring the condition of the bridge’s sidewalk brackets and also working on a revised load-rating analysis to “ensure the bridge is safe for all users.”

Pittsburgh appears to be making progress on its bridges, with repairs scheduled over the next 12 years on many of those rated in poor condition. It could push for additional resources as work begins in earnest this fall on the next revision of the region’s construction plan, or tap some of its millions in surplus gas tax dollars.

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 jmoss@unionprogress.com.

Jon Moss

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 jmoss@unionprogress.com.