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Local Spotlight: How safe are our bridges?

After a Pittsburgh bridge collapsed in January 2022, injuring at least ten people, reporters looked into bridge safety statewide.
After a Pittsburgh bridge collapsed in January 2022, injuring at least ten people, reporters looked into bridge safety statewide.

On Jan. 28, 2022, the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, collapsed. At least 10 people were injured.

In the aftermath of the incident, reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette began looking into bridge safety in their state. They found that bridges owned by the state were in much better condition than bridges owned by counties or cities, like the Fern Hollow Bridge.

Meanwhile, the number of poor bridges owned by the city has remained stagnant. These bridges have been in bad shape for a while — roughly 1/5th of city-owned bridges have been poor for 10+ years pic.twitter.com/YI9prxzLcD

— Joel Jacobs (@jmdjacobs) February 14, 2022

They also found that local officials were unsure how to get money to fix their bridges, even if they were aware the infrastructure was in need of repair. This left bridges languishing in poor condition for years, even as people continued to drive on them.

In the course of their reporting, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation removed safety data on more than 20,000 of the state’s bridges from the internet so the public could no longer access it. More than 3,000 were rated poor. PennDOT claims the information is not meant to be public and presents a terrorism risk, showcasing which bridges are easier targets.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette responded by putting the bridge data online.

Bridge collapses are rare in the U.S., including in 2007 in Minneapolis and in 2013 in Seattle. Even so, they point to a system that fails to properly maintain the important infrastructure that allows us to travel safely. That’s part of why President Joe Biden has made infrastructure improvement one of the major goals of his administration.

In the latest edition of our Local Spotlight series, we talk to the investigative reporters who looked into Pennsylvania’s bridges, before getting a national update.

This is part of a series called “Local Spotlight,” where we cover local stories that deserve national attention. Have a suggestion about what we should feature? You know where to find us.

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