The department charged with upkeep of Pittsburgh’s physical infrastructure is severely understaffed, according to its director, at a time when it is confronting a legacy of deferred maintenance across bridges and other key assets.
“We are nowhere, nowhere near the staffing levels, nor the compensation levels, that we need to be competitive,” said Kim Lucas, who leads the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, at a budget hearing last December. “The job market is tough for everybody right now, but I can tell you we’ve got positions we’ve posted with zero candidates.”
Better known as DOMI, the department was formed less than a decade ago and handles a grab bag of tasks ranging from street paving to landslide remediation to bridge maintenance. It has the grueling work of maintaining the bones of a city that only five years ago shed its “financially distressed” status, and frequently faces off against other needy municipalities for scarce infrastructure dollars.
A city spokesperson did not respond to requests for an interview with Lucas.
Before coming to Pittsburgh in 2019, Lucas worked for the District of Columbia, and she said the transportation department there had 10 times the amount of staff as DOMI. She said a requirement for employees to live in Pittsburgh can limit the number of job applicants, along with salaries that aren’t competitive with the private sector for many people.
“I’ve heard from some people in the local market that said to work for the city, they would have to take a $50,000 pay cut to work in some of our upper-level engineer positions that are so vastly critical to our city’s infrastructure,” she said.
“If I had a magic wand, that’s where I would invest, would be in the folks here,” she added.
Additional resources could potentially be on the way to DOMI. Mayor Ed Gainey announced last week that the city would challenge the tax exemptions of 26 properties, as part of a larger review that could potentially result in millions of dollars in new revenue to the city, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools. A restoration of all 26 properties to the tax rolls would bring in about $3.5 million in back taxes, plus hundreds of thousands of new revenue every year.
Eric Setzler, Pittsburgh’s chief engineer, said at the same hearing that the city has “not really had any in-house capacity for quite a number of years” for bridge maintenance, despite Pittsburgh owning one of the largest number of bridges of any municipality in Pennsylvania. This leaves the city largely reliant on expensive contractors.
Setzler noted the city’s 2023 budget introduced several new positions, including a bridge maintenance supervisor, to build out the department’s bridge team. The supervisor position wasn’t posted on the city’s job website as of Friday, though the website did include listings for both a deputy chief engineer for structures and a construction supervisor.
“I’m really excited that we’re taking the first step this year,” he said. “I expect there will be more, maybe throughout next year, or in the following year’s budget, to try to build that in-house capacity, which will allow us to get more done quicker and at a lower cost.”
When the bridge maintenance supervisor is hired, they will inherit work produced from a $1.5 million contract awarded last year to engineering firm WSP. The company is completing years of catch-up work for the city, such as reviewing current bridge inspection reports; developing a list of immediate and near-term needs; prioritizing a list of repairs; developing a comprehensive maintenance program; and recommending how the city should run its new bridge team.
The firm has already delivered key results: It completed a review of all current bridge inspection reports late last year and recommended several follow-up inspections. The Charles Anderson Bridge, which carries the busy Boulevard of the Allies between Oakland and Schenley Park, received an “updated structural analysis” troubling enough to temporarily close it.
Pittsburgh is far from the only city to deal with limited in-house capacity for infrastructure projects, one of several topics examined in a recent report spanning more than 400 pages from New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.
Eric Goldwyn, an assistant professor at NYU who helped author the report, told the Union Progress that government agencies across the country have moved for decades to outsource even basic work to consultants. He said promises this would lead to lower costs and speedier projects haven’t proven to be true.
“Once you start doing that, and bringing in consultants, you downsize the staff at your agency,” he said. “The issue is that you also run the risk of losing expertise to manage those people effectively.”
Goldwyn added that in many ways, the current arrangement has given “the job of administration, not of doing” to the government, and reversing this trend could be “very fraught” politically. He said city officials should listen to what Setzler and other DOMI officials say needs to be done, and “then figure out all the problems to get to that end solution.”
“These are conversations we have to have,” he said. “Obviously, if bridges are collapsing in Pittsburgh, that’s a crisis, and people in Pittsburgh are going to understand that. And they’re going to want to do something and change the way that things work to get a better outcome.”
Before the contract was signed with WSP, in response to the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, City Council passed three reform bills, which form a commission to provide advice on best practices for short- and long-term infrastructure investments; require the release of more information about city-maintained infrastructure, such as an inspection history and risk factors; and create a task force to make sure funding is distributed equitably.
The commission appeared to be structured similarly to other panels, such as the Clean Pittsburgh and Shade Tree commissions, where experts and community members can zero in on a particular topic and provide recommendations to city officials. No members have been appointed yet to the Commission on Infrastructure Asset Reporting and Investment.
City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger — she represents the 8th District, which includes Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill — co-sponsored two of the bills. She thinks forming the commission is still a good idea and said it could find ways to assist DOMI in its bridge repair efforts.
“Commissions … are created to keep a certain issue in their focus, when people within the mayor’s office and City Council members both get bogged down with other priorities and change office. They come in and out as new people are elected,” she said. “I do think that the permanence of that [commission] could be a positive thing.”
A city spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about if or when the mayor would nominate his picks for the commission.
This year is a crucial one for Pittsburgh and the many other municipalities that are largely reliant on the state and federal governments to fund local infrastructure projects. Dollars are funneled through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, one of several regional planning organizations across Pennsylvania, which will start working later this year to compile its next four-year infrastructure plan.
A prioritized list of repairs was due to be sent from WSP to the city last month, which could inform the projects that officials push to be included in the four-year plan.
But priorities can also change quickly. After the Charles Anderson Bridge was closed, Lucas told City Council last month that the department was able to work with SPC to move up a larger rehabilitation project that had been planned for several years in the future — a change that affected the repair schedule for other structures.
“They can’t just make up money in a year; there had to be some substitutions with other projects,” she said. “We’ve worked out, and especially Deputy Director Jeff Skalican, worked out with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to switch around with some of their projects that had been funded in earlier years to frontload the money for the city’s project.”