PennDOT eases public perception over bridge ratings system

Feb. 4, 2022

An emergency design contract will fast-track the reconstruction of the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge

One week after Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh, PennDOT Acting Executive Deputy Secretary Melissa Batula and Acting Deputy Secretary for Highway Administration Mike Keiser addressed the media to discuss the state's bridge rating system.

Part of Forbes Avenue, the Fern Hollow Bridge was one of roughly 176 bridges in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, that are labeled poor. The city is home to about 30 of those bridges in poor condition.

"We do have a very rigorous process in place that we do evaluate to make sure bridges are safe," Batula said. "Just because they say poor doesn't mean that there is something significantly wrong with that bridge that's putting them in jeopardy."

During her opening remarks, Batula explained how bridges are rated between 0 to 9 based on the state of three categories: its deck, superstructure, and the substructure or culvert. The entire bridge is then classified based on the lowest component condition rating by one of those three categories. 

PennDOT conducts 18,000 bridge inspections each year, which averages out to about 70 per day. 

"Similar to evaluating a person's overall health, a bridge condition is far too complex to really fully be described with three condition ratings," Batula said. 

In 2008, there were over 6,000 state-owned bridges that were in poor condition in Pennsylvania. Today, that number is just over 2,400 bridges. But because of the age of its bridges, and the size of Pennsylvania, 250 of its state-owned bridges move into that poor category every year. 

"So we must preserve, repair and replace at a greater rate each year to continue that trend of reducing the number of bridges that are in poor condition," Batula said. 

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed the morning President Biden was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh to talk about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Thanks to the new law, Pennsylvania is set to receive $1.6 billion to fix more than 3,000 bridges across the commonwealth. 

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse. 

Also on Friday, it was announced that an emergency design contract will fast-track the reconstruction of the collapsed Fern Hollow Bridge.

The $25 million project on Forbes Avenue—one of Pittsburgh's most traveled roads—was expected to take a minimum of two years, but the timeline might be faster now.

PennDOT and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released a joint statement announcing a reimbursement grant agreement that allows PennDOT to design and build a new structure.

According to the statement, the agreement allows the Wolf administration to execute an emergency contract with Swank Construction Company/HDR Inc. to immediately start designing a new bridge and removing the rubble.

The 497-foot bridge collapsed into a ravine underneath it in Frick Park about 6:45 a.m. Friday, injuring 10 people.