More Pittsburgh officials urge PennDOT to slow Fern Hollow Bridge replacement

Some officials continue to express concerns about the proposed design of Pittsburgh’s new Fern Hollow Bridge.

PennDOT is overseeing the design and construction of the bridge, but the city will take control of the bridge once construction is complete. Since the project would be carried out under a declaration of emergency, with work due to begin in late April, the process is moving quickly and may bypass some elements of the public process, including the Art Commission review of Pittsburgh.

In a letter to PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, Pittsburgh City Comptroller Michael Lamb urged officials to “pause and better incorporate public input into the design process.”

Renders of the proposed design were unveiled this week. The new span will remain along the same roadway, with four lanes for vehicles, along with a sidewalk on the north side of the bridge and a shared-use two-way path on the south side of the bridge.

Lamb said the design would not be suitable for people crossing the bridge on foot or on bicycles.

“We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the new bridge meets the needs of all Pittsburgh residents,” Lamb said. “This includes walkers, cyclists and people of all ages and abilities. Unfortunately, the initial images reflect a bridge that does not match the now collapsed bridge in terms of space for people in non-motorized vehicles, nor the aesthetics of Frick Park or adjacent neighborhoods.

While Lamb said he applauds “the speed at which this project is moving forward,” he urged officials to take the time to listen to residents who will regularly see and use the span.

Scott Bricker of Bike Pittsburgh said he appreciates how quickly city officials and PennDOT are moving to replace the bridge, as Forbes Avenue is a major traffic corridor in Pittsburgh’s East End. But he said he hoped the new design would incorporate a redesign of that section of Forbes to slow down vehicles and make it friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians.

“We want the pavement to guide the design of the bridge. We think there may be a serious traffic slowdown there,” Bricker said.

Bricker said the section of Forbes Avenue near the site of the bridge regularly sees speeding drivers and he thinks reducing one lane could help slow vehicles up to 30 mph.

Bricker said he also wondered why the bike lanes that were on the Fern Hollow Bridge before it collapsed were eliminated from the replacement design. Renderings indicate that the shared-use path can be used for bikes and scooters, but this would require cyclists traveling westbound to cross four lanes of traffic to enter the westbound bike lane on Forbes Avenue uphill the hill.

“It’s great that we have a bridge in less than two years, but I hope they listen to the public and make it as good as possible while moving quickly,” Bricker said.

Art Commission Chairman Andrew Moss said he was less hopeful.

“We all understand that this bridge needs to be completed quickly, but we’re asking them to think about it aesthetically and cost-effectively,” Moss said. “A new bridge has the ability to enhance the beauty of the city.”

Moss said the commission’s role is to ensure that creativity is put to work on major projects, and he noted that Fern Hollow Bridge is valued infrastructure from above and below, as the hiking trails pass under the bridge.

Councilman Corey O’Connor, whose district includes the bridge site, said he spoke with PennDOT about traffic patterns on the bridge and other issues.

“There’s still time to polish,” O’Connor said. “Listening to many voters, everyone wants to have this conversation once the bridge is handed over to the city.”

Maria Montaño, spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Gainey, said it’s important to remember that renders are not the final product.

“Renders provided by PennDOT do not necessarily reflect what the final overall aesthetic will look like,” she said. “These things are still being looked at and it will be time for people to weigh in on those specific bridal aesthetic elements. Rightly so, people would love to see this bridge fit into the community. We are definitely hearing that.

PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said that while the public process is “somewhat compressed,” the agency is working with the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, Department of Public Works of the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

PennDOT has also launched a webpage where it will begin collecting public feedback on the project in the coming days.

Regarding concerns about cyclists and pedestrians, Montaño said the redesigned bridge “actually has 50% more space for bicycles and pedestrians. Although we have never been able to widening the structure – because it just wasn’t feasible – we were able to work with our traffic engineers to really improve the conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.

Vehicular lanes and shoulders are narrower, leaving more room for bicycles and pedestrians. The new bridge will include a barrier between vehicles and pedestrians to improve safety, Montaño said.

“This is an improvement over the old Fern Hollow Bridge,” she said.