NO. 3 BRIDGE: PennDOT to the Rescue

Dec. 12, 2023
A project team rebuilds a vital Pittsburgh bridge in less than a year

After Dawn on Jan. 28, 2022, hours before President Biden was scheduled to, ironically, speak about infrastructure in Pittsburgh, the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed on the city’s east end.

A mass transit bus and four passenger vehicles fell with it. Thankfully, no lives were lost in the collapse. However, if not for a snow storm that started the night before and stretched into that morning, more motorists would have been on the bridge. Perhaps even school buses (Pittsburgh Public Schools had a delay).

Losing part of a vital artery in Pittsburgh was the best possible outcome given the circumstances..

Then-Gov. Tom Wolf declared an emergency, which cleared the way for state and federal money to be used for the reconstruction. The goal: rebuild this crucial structure as soon as possible for the residents in the City of Bridges.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) led this emergency restoration project and selected HDR to serve as the lead designer for Swank Construction.

The project team rebuild the Fern Hollow Bridge in less than a year. The job had a spotlight on it throughout the process, and this team rose to the challenge with hard work and dedication.

PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure coordinated to review and accept designs so crews could get this bridge up and open as fast as possible.

“While under an intense schedule and established budget, evaluating and Implementing as many suggestions as possible from stakeholder and public input was paramount to a successful outcome,” said Jason Fuller, senior project manager at HDR. “Multiple enhancements developed through the community outreach were incorporated. The unbelievable community support publicly displayed during the construction validated the project team efforts.”

The new bridge crosses over the Fern Hollow Creek and Tranquil Trail, which are part Frick Park, one of Pittsburgh’s icnoic green spaces.

This job was anything but normal. The engineers designed structural elements simultaneously from both the top down and the bottom up.

While working on the foundation, engineers determined that 8.5-foot-diameter drilled shafts were viable. Swank performed this with the equipment they owned, drilling onsite as soon as the plans were approved.

The team worked diligently and hard. They identified major constraints early on, such as the Frick Park Gatehouse (an iconic structure that welcomes people to the park) and Briarcliff Road (which dead-ends next to the beginning of the bridge). In addition to the accelerated schedule and wanting to remain within the existing right of way, the project team eliminated alignment changes. This information helped the team match the structure’s existing out-to-out width.

The team re-allocated the bridge width, implementing a 10-foot 5-inch shared use path, satisfying the public’s request for more multi-modal access.

Community was a key piece in this project. Residents wanted this bridge rebuilt. The delivery of the bridge beams became a spur of the moment event with residents watching and applauding as they traveled through the city.

This accelerated effort became more than rebuilding a bridge - the project team was part of this community that wanted its bridge back and workers felt supported.

The team utilized press releases, a project website, and community outreach to not only keep residents informed, but also to get input on the new structure.

Two local artists developed site enhancements on the bridge. They created etchings of the geological history for the bridge deck and trail enhancements below the bridge.

The project team also wanted to preserve the Frick Park Gatehouse’s historic features. It was designed by John Russel Pope, the architect who designed the Jefferson Memorial. The team took inspiration from the gatehouse for the new piers’ form liner.

A 460-foot, three-span structure was selected, which helped restore access to this crucial bridge.

The project was completed in late 2022 and opened three days before Christmas — a nice gift for Pittsburgh to receive. RB

Project: Fern Hollow Bridge Emergency Replacement Project 

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

Owners: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 11 / City of Pittsburgh 

Designer: HDR 

Contractor: Swank Construction Company, LLC 

Length: 460-foot-long 

Completion Date: December 22, 2022