A look at the Steel City’s infrastructure woes

This column published as "Pittsburgh's Pride" in October 2021 issue

Gavin Jenkins / October 05, 2021 / 3 minute read
Gavin Jenkins

Have you ever hit a pothole so hard that it throws off your car’s alignment?

It’s not pleasant. Neither is driving under a bridge that’s falling apart—literally. Pieces of debris fall from the bridge so often that nets don’t catch everything. The city builds a second bridge under the old bridge to keep drivers safe. If you can relate to these experiences, then you might live in Pittsburgh, too.

This is my first issue as Roads & Bridges’ managing editor. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I’ve moved away twice as an adult, but I returned each time.

I love the winding roads that climb the city’s steep hills, the three rivers at Pittsburgh’s heart, and the 446 bridges that connect everything. But living here isn’t all rainbows and pierogies. Pittsburgh is the poster city for America’s infrastructure crisis. More than 20% of the city’s bridges are structurally deficient. The roads aren’t any better. We get six months of the freeze-thaw cycle each year, and our asphalt roads get blasted by salt whenever it snows. Combine that with an increase in small-truck deliveries and it’s a recipe for potholes.

However, potholes are more of a local perception of Pittsburgh’s roads. The national sense can be summed up by one image: a bus stuck in a downtown sinkhole. Poor infrastructure is a statewide concern, too. According to Federal Highway Administration data, 14.6% of Pennsylvania’s bridges are considered to be in poor condition and 52.8% are in fair condition. Meanwhile, 27% of state roads are considered to be in poor condition and 24% qualify as mediocre.

As Tim Bruns, Roads & Bridges’ associate editor, pointed out in this space last issue, a bipartisan infrastructure package passed in the Senate, and it seems like America’s lawmakers are close to investing in the road and bridge construction industry.

Hopefully, help is on the way. Improved infrastructure can lift people’s spirits. I know I’m wearing my hometown like a badge right now, but believe me when I say I have an average amount of Pittsburgh pride. I have no problem admitting that Cleveland is a beautiful city, and I don’t drive around with a Steelers flag waving on top of my car, like some people.

So, you can imagine how embarrassed people are that Pittsburgh—the Steel City—is known nationally for poor infrastructure.

Before its demolition in 2015, the Greenfield Bridge, which I referenced earlier, was featured on 60 Minutes. Debris started falling from the bridge and landing on the highway below in 1989. A second bridge was built underneath the Greenfield Bridge to catch the debris. This caught the attention of John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In March 2015, he joked: “That is a college sophomore approach to structural engineering.”

I saw nothing wrong with the approach. But hey, my parents drove under the Greenfield Bridge, so maybe I’m not the best audience for that joke. That’s why the roads and bridges construction industry is so important. You’re not only improving the country’s infrastructure. You’re also saving lives. That’s why it’s an honor to have this job.

About the Author

Jenkins is managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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