Federal Response to Pittsburgh Bridge Collapse: Presidential Visit, NTSB Investigation, and U.S. DOT awards National Highway Performance Program Funds

The dramatic collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge on the east side of Pittsburgh on January 28 has left Pittsburgh residents grateful that no one was killed.  

I grew up in this area of Pittsburgh.  Fern Hollow Bridge served as my primary route into the city.  I used it to get to school, and to visit my grandparents. The bridge spans a ravine in Frick Park (bequeathed by industrialist Henry Clay Frick), which is a large city park in an otherwise urbanized area, with city neighborhoods on either side of the park.  The park contains a network of trails and just this past August my Mother and I walked across the bridge in order to access those trails.  Prior to Covid, 14,000 commuters per day utilized the Fern Hollow Bridge. 

Naturally, I have been interested in the federal response to the bridge collapse.  First, President Biden visited the site of the collapse.  He was already slated to speak approximately 5 miles away at a former steel mill redeveloped into a Carnegie Mellon University hub for advanced technologies. 

In addition to the President’s visit, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) initiated an investigation into the cause of the collapse lead by NTSB Chair, Jennifer Homendy.  ATLP published an interview that I conducted with Chair Homendy in September 2020.  In that interview, Chair Homendy explained that the NTSB investigates every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant crashes in other modes of transportation.

It turns out that the bridge has been rated in poor condition for more than a decade.  Repairs were estimated at $1.5 million.  A mere four days following the collapse, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is awarding to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania a $25.3 million grant to replace the Fern Hollow Bridge through the National Highway Performance Program, which despite its name, allows for funds to be used beyond the National Highway System.  According to FHWA, Congress created the National Highway Performance Program under MAP-21 and re-authorized it under the FAST Act. 

Pittsburgh commuters will welcome the federal involvement to return this access point into the city.  But the bridge collapse serves as a reminder of the importance of addressing infrastructure needs before there are serious incidents like the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, and the role the federal government plays in all aspects – even a local transportation artery – of American transportation infrastructure.




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