Cost a battle for officials trying to maintain Pittsburgh’s city steps
Charlotte Watenpool lives in Florida but vacations in Pittsburgh to walk city steps.
Watenpool, 54, of Largo plans to walk all 44,600 of them.
“I almost wish I lived there, but I don’t like the cold,” she said.
Don’t call her crazy. A lot of other people like them, too.
They walk steps to get from one section of Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain to another for shopping, to catch a bus or walk to work. Others like them for the exercise, or to view otherwise unavailable city vistas.
Bob Regan, 75, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor who in 2004 wrote the book, “The Steps of Pittsburgh,” said Pittsburghers should embrace their steps. No city in the country has as many, he said, and they are unique in an era when people are choosing to live in walkable cities.
“I’ve never seen anything like them in a city, and I’m not alone,” Regan said. “What other city ever had a mass transit system that was a set of steps?”
The problem for cash-strapped Pittsburgh is that maintenance of steps is expensive. Numerous stairways fell into disrepair and had to be closed.
Pittsburgh since 2006 has budgeted $200,000 annually for repair of city-owned steps, walls and fences.
Operations Chief Guy Costa said nearly half the 2014 line item — $98,000 — is earmarked for two jobs, steps on Blanton Street in Greenfield and Round Top Street in Crafton Heights. He said $100,000 from the 2013 budget is set to repair steps on Wenzell Avenue in Beechview.
Costa said steps were constructed when walking was the main mode of travel for working people. Then, vehicle use increased, and neighborhoods changed.
“You have very limited dollars and we have to prioritize, based on funding availability and how much the steps are used,” Costa said.
He said the city plans to employ interns this summer to inventory and report on the condition of steps.
Mayor Bill Peduto said his goal is to find dedicated funding for improvements of all city assets. He said the city is working on a plan to fund long-term capital needs.
He suggested the city might find money for steps from advertising on city property.
“We should have a 10-year plan to be able to do it the same way with our streets and every other public asset,” Peduto said.
Regan of Greenfield rode his bike 1,300 miles to document city steps. He spent 735 hours finding 712 sets that include 44,645 treads. Five sets have more than 300 treads.
Astoundingly, 334 sets are legal streets, identified as such on maps and by city street signs. The situation confuses unfamiliar drivers.
Ray DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s deputy director of emergency management, said he often had to find detours when he worked on a city ambulance in 1975.
“There were numerous times when I was navigating and the driver’s driving that we screeched at a set of city steps,” he said.
Steps provide the only access to some homes, including Mary Casciato’s in Oakland.
“You should have seen us carrying groceries up here,” said Casciato, 78, who lives on Diulus Way, 32 steps from the nearest street. “All the kids got a bag.”
Casciato always wanted to move, but her late husband, Robert, refused. She said it gets tiring carrying garbage cans to the street and hauling up heavy stuff.
“I’ve been trying to move out of here for 55 years,” she said.
Community groups, including South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association and Fineview Citizen’s Council, sponsor volunteer efforts to clean and maintain steps.
South Side has 68 sets, more than any other neighborhood.
“It’s a very pedestrian environment here,” said Brian Oswald, president of the South Side group. “I can walk down and get a beer and a bite to eat any time I want. I don’t have to drive anywhere.”
Watenpool, who grew up in Cranberry, said she learned about city steps from Regan’s book. She’s been walking them with her cousin, Colleen Kulikowski of Penn Hills, and estimates she has walked 150 sets.
“You get to see the city of Pittsburgh from an angle that nobody else will ever see unless they walk the steps,” she said. “It’s good for exercise, its good for the view, and I just think it clears your mind when you’re walking the steps.”
Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or email@example.com.