The bridges of Allegheny County

Construction has begun on Pittsburgh’s Boulevard of the Allies Bridge, one of nearly 6000 Pennsylvania bridges that state-certified bridge inspectors deemed “structurally deficient,” the same term used to describe the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis this summer.

A structurally deficient bridge is safe to drive over, but “needs costly repairs to bring it up to current standards,” said Jason Zang, assistant bridge engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

Structurally deficient bridges often have restrictions such as weight limits. The existing Boulevard of the Allies bridge, built in 1928, now has a weight limit of nine tons, according to PennDOT’s website.

Using the term “structurally deficient” to describe a bridge helps to decide “where it falls on the priority list” for receiving money from the government, Zang said.

The inspection of a bridge compares it to others nationwide in order to determine the urgency of the need for repairs and the amount of money allocated to the project.

In the case of the Boulevard of the Allies Bridge, applying the label indicated that the bridge had deteriorated enough to move to the top of the list, which expedited government funding so construction could begin as soon as possible.

PennDOT estimates that the final cost of the project will be $29 million.

Ultimately, the bridge will undergo “complete top-to-bottom replacement,” Zang said. Once the replacement is complete, the weight limit and concerns about the safety of the bridge will be eliminated.

The construction, once complete, will also alleviate problems with traffic flow into and out of Oakland, a positive change for students who drive through the area.

“It would be good if they fixed the traffic problems [on the boulevard] because it connects Oakland to other parts of Pittsburgh,” said Nicole Hallinen, a junior French and psychology major.

Hallinen’s home is located in a suburb of Pittsburgh, about a 30-minute drive from campus.

Currently, getting from Fifth Avenue to the Boulevard of the Allies involves driving in a counterflow lane on Forbes Avenue. The new north ramp, slated to be built by late November, will eliminate that problem, so that drivers no longer have to travel “basically against the flow of traffic,” according to PennDOT Community Relations Coordinator Jim Struzzi.

Together with the new south ramp that will connect the boulevard to Forbes, the new ramp should drastically improve traffic flow through this area, Struzzi said, which is the main connection between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland. To boot, Struzzi said the area will also be more aesthetically pleasing when the project is completed.

The expected completion date for the project is May 1, 2009, according to PennDOT. The project is running on schedule, and both Struzzi and Zang estimate that if it continues to progress the way it has, construction will most likely finish on time.

In the meantime, drivers can expect various detours and traffic restrictions throughout the area, including tapering traffic on Forbes Avenue to two lanes.

Some students who have sat through traffic jams on the sites of other bridge renovations are ambivalent about driving through the construction zone.

“Hopefully, this will be less inconvenient than the Homestead Grays Bridge construction,” Hallinen said.

Work on the Grays Bridge, which goes to the Waterfront, began in 2006 and is still underway.

Eventually, all traffic across the boulevard bridge will be detoured elsewhere so the structure can be replaced.

“The main thing that people need to know is that the bridge will not be taken out of commission until early 2008,” Struzzi said.

For now, though, the bridge will remain in use.