A bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania collapsed on Friday, taking a bus down with it and resulting in at least 10 people reporting injuries—though fortunately, no one was severely harmed or died. The collapse occurred just hours before Joe Biden was scheduled to give a speech in the city on the crumbling state of the nation’s infrastructure.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the bridge that takes Forbes Avenue over Frick Park, the Fern Hollow Bridge, crumbled as at least four cars and a Port Authority bus were crossing at around 6:45 a.m. local time on Friday morning. Four individuals were transported to local hospitals, though none had life-threatening injuries and UPMC told the paper all are in fair condition.
“The good thing at this point is that there are no fatalities, and we’re going to pray there are no fatalities,” Mayor Ed Gainey (D) told reporters on Friday, according to the Post-Gazette. “We were fortunate.” Pittsburgh Public Safety has said it is investigating the incident as well as conducting a search under the collapsed portion of the bridge to ensure that no one was buried underneath the rubble.
The bridge is a major thoroughfare for commuters heading to universities and hospitals. That the collapse didn’t happen during rush hour traffic is a matter of sheer luck.
“Had this been a half-hour or an hour later, it could have been much worse,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told reporters.
The Fern Hollow Bridge dates to 1970 and has long been known to have serious structural issues, with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation inspectors having noted problems since at least 2011. Inspections dating that far back have rated the bridge’s condition as four on a 1-9 scale, or “poor,” meaning that “deterioration of primary structural elements has advanced.” In the most recent inspection carried out in September 2021, both the deck and rigid steel superstructure scored a “poor” rating, although the substructure was satisfactory. A rating of poor does not indicate in and of itself that the bridge is so dangerous it needs to be taken out of service; that is instead a rating of 2 (critical) or 1 (“imminent failure”).
In 2018, a Twitter user posted a photo of a fully rusted-through beam under the Fern Hollow Bridge, tagging the city of Pittsburgh’s 311 account. It’s unknown whether that issue was specifically related to the collapse or just indicative of the bridge’s broader condition; the issue is marked as “CLOSED” on the city’s 311 report tracker.
It is hardly unique among its brethren throughout the rest of Allegheny County—inspectors have given identical ratings to 80 bridges there, according to Bloomberg. Some 3,353 bridges were rated as poor or worse throughout Pennsylvania as of 2018, or nearly 15% of all bridges in the state. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which issues reports on the condition of bridges throughout the country, ranks Pennsylvania as the fifth-worst state in the percentage of bridges rated as structurally deficient and second-worst, behind only Iowa, in the absolute number of such bridges.
According to Bloomberg, state transportation budget documents from 2021 do not include any plans to renovate the Fern Hollow Bridge.
Biden will be speaking in Pittsburgh on Friday to discuss a new recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure law that includes $110 billion for roads and bridges. Tens of billions are slated for rebuilding bridges, with Pennsylvania slated to receive about $1.6 billion in federal funds for that purpose. In its pitch for the law, the White House stated that 173,000 total miles of road and 45,000 bridges across the U.S. were in need of major repairs.
That law, however, was slashed down from the Biden administration’s original $2.25 trillion proposal in order to placate budget hawks in Congress. The original number was less than some economists and climate activists had called for. Just $550 billion of the version signed into law is actually new spending, with the rest being already been previously approved by Congress. Biden had originally asked for $159 billion to rebuild and renovate roads and bridges across the country. That allocation was cut to $110 billion.
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, was on the scene and told Bloomberg he had driven over the bridge just hours prior.
“This bridge is A to Z why we need infrastructure improvements,” Fetterman told reporters, predicting the rebuilding of the Fern Hollow Bridge would shoot to the top of the state’s transportation priority list.
“We’re the city of bridges — and how many are out there?” Fetterman added, according to the Post-Gazette. “I hope it’s a wake-up call to the nation that we have to make these critical infrastructure investments and that people are afforded a safe drive to work. I’m just grateful nobody was killed.”