How Transit Can Meet the Moment with the Fern Hollow Bridge Collapse

image description: PennDOT rendering of a reconstruction proposal for the replacement of the Fern Hollow Bridge.

PennDOT’s Fern Hollow Bridge Public Comment Form is OPEN

Opportunity in a crash

PPT Blog written by Emily Howe

The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge on January 28, 2022 has fueled discussions at the city, state, and federal level about investing more in critical infrastructure.  One outcome of these discussions is that PennDOT will provide funding to rebuild the city-owned Fern Hollow Bridge.

This is good news. PennDOT recently released a rendering of the Fern Hollow bridge design and has stated they plan to begin construction in April. This rendering and the quick timeline has fueled concerns from local officials like City Controller Michael Lamb that there has not been enough community input and that the needs of non-motorized bridge users haven’t been adequately assessed.

While not mentioned on PennDOT’s Fern Hollow page, we recently learned that the impetus for this quick timeline along with the depiction of tractor trailers on the new bridge is due to another pending PennDOT project that predates the bridge collapse: replacing the Commercial Street Bridge. Beginning in summer 2023, PennDOT plans to close the Commercial Street Bridge and detour I-376 traffic between Regents Square and Squirrel Hill via the Fern Hollow Bridge. This detour explains both PennDOT’s urgency to repair the Fern Hollow Bridge and why the rendering resembles a highway and prioritizes car and truck traffic.

While the current design for the Fern Hollow Bridge makes sense as a short-term solution given the upcoming replacement of the Commercial Street Bridge, these constraints do not eliminate the need for consulting with communities around both short- and long-term opportunities that these bridge replacements present.

In the short-term, Port Authority should work with residents to strategize how their public transit needs can be better served with the current detours on the 61A and 61B buses due to the Fern Hollow Bridge closure. Residents have already proposed a few ways that the 61A and 61B detours can better meet their needs:

  • These long-term detours should be incorporated into the regular schedule with appropriate running times and established bus stops to better serve residents (e.g., between Forbes and Wilkins on S Dallas Avenue and between Forbes and Penn on S Braddock Ave)
  • Port Authority/Pittsburgh/PennDOT should evaluate the possibility of transit signal priority for buses along Penn Ave or bus only lanes during rush hours.
  • On-street parking along Penn Ave from Dallas to Braddock should be prohibited.

In addition, the future 3-week closure of the Commercial Street Bridge also presents an opportunity for Port Authority to capture new riders as drivers seek to avoid high congestion and increased travel times by car. However, this will require Port Authority to establish more efficient connections from Regents Square and Squirrel Hill to popular destinations like Oakland and Downtown during the Commercial Street Bridge closure/I-376 detours. Improved P3, P7 and P71 service along with a targeted advertising campaign could encourage residents of Wilkinsburg, Edgewood, Regent Square, Swissvale and Rankin who drive to try the bus. Using the bus will help residents avoid causing and sitting in congestion, and help them to realize the benefit of the East Busway to their communities The campaign could also showcase the East Busway as the only route with excess capacity for more users. Penn Avenue and the Parkway East barely had enough capacity prior to the bridge collapse. This is a chance for the East Busway to shine and prove its worth to the communities it serves.

In looking towards long-term solutions, the City needs to work with residents to create a design plan for the Fern Hollow Bridge once PennDOT relinquishes it (post Commercial Street Bridge reconstruction). The goal of the Fern Hollow redesign should be to address shortcomings with the prior bridge, including:

  • pedestrian walkways that were too narrow for wheelchair and stroller access
  • bicyclists being funneled into traffic
  • the high speeds of cars and related safety concerns
  • outbound congestion that slows transit during rush hour

There have already been a few proposals to address these problems. For example, having one inbound lane and two outbound lanes could lessen congestion, while also creating more space for bike lanes and sidewalks.

While we support PennDOT in moving swiftly to replace the Fern Hollow Bridge, we do not have to trade off speed and efficiency at the expense of community input. In fact, the replacement of the Fern Hollow and Commercial Street Bridges creates opportunities for The Port Authority to capture new riders and for the future Fern Hollow Bridge to better meet community needs. Now is the time for residents to come together to determine how our public infrastructure will look and function for decades to come.

PennDOT has released their comment form for the public to give input into the bridge design. Take 2 minutes to give your input today: