Pittsburgh could lose $4.6 million if Council fails to act on North Side bridge replacement
Pittsburgh could lose about $4.6 million in federal and state highway funds if City Council fails by Sept. 20 to allocate the money for construction of a new bridge on West Ohio Street that crosses Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks, a city official said Wednesday.
Federal and state officials could also order Pittsburgh to repay about $1.5 million that the city has spent since 1999 on design work for the North Side bridge, according to Karina Ricks, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.
Council on Wednesday at the request of Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who represents that section of the North Side and opposes the bridge design, postponed a vote for one week on allocating the money. Harris of Spring Hill said her constituents oppose raising the bridge three feet so double-stacked rail cars can pass under it. The city closed the century-old bridge in January because of structural deficiencies.
“Right at this moment of time, the city is in danger of losing ($4.6) million,” Ricks said. “We’re just dangerously close. I think that our absolute drop dead date is more like Sept. 20. Even that is pushing that. Every day is pushing it at this point.”
She said the city under federal highway rules would have six more years before it would be required to repay the $1.5 million.
“If they don’t take action on this we would not need to immediately pay that money back, but we would need to come up with our own money to build the bridge,” she said, estimating it would cost about $7 million.
She said another major problem is the closing of West Ohio, one of the city’s busier streets. Residents on nearby North Avenue are complaining about an increase in traffic detoured because of the closure.
“We need that street connection,” Ricks said. “There’s a whole chain reaction of things that happen if that connection is essentially permanently lost to the city.”
The bridge has stirred neighborhood controversy for years. It intensified after Norfolk Southern won a 2005 Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case forcing the city to raise the bridge. Pittsburgh in 1999 intended to replace the bridge, built in 1903, at its original 19-foot elevation. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved the construction.
Norfolk Southern appealed to Commonwealth Court, and the court ruled the bridge must be elevated to 22 feet.
Harris said residents objected to altering the historic bridge elevation and are concerned about double-stacked trains passing through the heart of Pittsburgh. The rail line runs from Manchester and three other North Side neighborhoods, crosses the Allegheny River near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and runs generally through the Strip District, Bloomfield, Oakland and Schenley Park to the Monongahela River.
“These trains are carrying dangerous chemicals and everything else, and you saw what just happened,” she said, referring to an Aug. 5 Norfolk Southern derailment of nonhazardous goods at Station Square in the South Side. “I want to make sure the residents of the city are safe.”
Harris said residents want railroad and state officials to meet with them and discuss the plans, adding that a meeting in July was not informative.
Norfolk Southern runs double-stacked trains through an alternative route paralleling the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. It wants to use the shorter route through the city, but four bridges, including West Ohio Street, are too low for trains to pass underneath. West Ohio would be the first bridge raised.
“There is a (Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission) order out there requiring the replacement of the bridge within a certain timeframe,” railroad spokesman Rudy Husband said. “If they don’t approve (the allocation of money), then they’ll be in violation of that PUC order.”
Pittsburgh already violates the order, according to a PUC document that in 2006 gave Pittsburgh about two years to develop and submit plans for replacing the bridge.
“Just in general, noncompliance with an order can lead to penalties, but there has not been any in this case,” said PUC spokesman David Hixson. “The commission is still waiting for final plans for rebuilding it in accordance with the order.”
Harris said she intends to speak over the next week with state officials about extending the deadline for allocating the money.
But “if we don’t have the money to put the bridge up, then we don’t have the money,” Harris said.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, bb[email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.