Closure of small North Irwin bridge could cause big problems

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

A small bridge in North Irwin that was shut down last month because it's in such bad shape could cause big headaches during an emergency, officials say.

The 140-foot bridge that connects Fourth Street and West Broadway Avenue was closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic on July 12 after PennDOT engineers discovered during a routine inspection that its steel support columns are so rusty that the bridge is in jeopardy of collapsing, according to officials.

The bridge, which was built in 1911 and has a wooden deck, was described as “critically deficient” and unable to safely hold a “dead load,” or its own weight, according to Dan Helfrich, a civil engineer with the state Public Utility Commission, or PUC.

The PUC is involved in the process of repairing or replacing the bridge because it spans tracks owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad, which is responsible for the substructure of the span, according to Helfrich.

Westmoreland County and the state, which are responsible for the upper portions of the bridge, would share the cost of repairs or replacement with the railroad. Depending on how the project is financed, the North Irwin also could be responsible for a portion of the cost, officials said.

Though the bridge is on the outskirts of the borough, it's important because it is along the easiest route to get to the municipality's road-salt storage facility, according to Councilman Ron Brown.

“It's certainly going to be an inconvenience for the road crew when it needs to load up with salt in the winter,” Brown said after county, state and local officials met at the bridge on Friday. “But the biggest concern about the bridge being closed is public safety.”

Engineer Lucien Bove, who represented North Irwin at the meeting, said the bridge is “a vital link to the community” because the two other roads leading into the borough are “steep, narrow and have sharp turns,” which makes it difficult to traverse for public-safety vehicles, such as firetrucks.

Bove and police Chief Roger Pivirotto raised concerns about emergency access to the properties and businesses on the West Broadway side of the bridge if a problem occurs along First Street — one of the other main roads leading into the borough — which passes through a Norfolk Southern railroad tunnel.

“If something happened at that railroad tunnel, you'd be looking at an eight-mile detour to get to this section of town,” Bove said.

Joe Mochar, 64, of Franklin Avenue said the most troubling part of the inspection report is the fact that the bridge is not sound enough to hold its own weight.

“I'm pretty sure that some of the trains that go under that bridge are carrying hazardous chemicals,” he said. “What are we going to do if the bridge happens to fall when one of those trains are passing?”

David Wyatt, a private engineer who represented Norfolk Southern at Friday's meeting, said that while PennDOT's report stated the bridge is not able to hold its own weight, the fact is the structure is still standing.

Because of the concerns raised about the length of time it might take to replace the bridge, Wyatt suggested that one possible solution to speed up its reopening would be to reduce the weight limit and make it single lane.

Ron Hall, a senior civil engineer for the PUC, said last week's meeting starts a 45-day process in which Norfolk Southern must submit a plan to the regulatory agency on how it plans to correct problems with the bridge.

Because of the length of time it can take to line up funding and go through the design, permitting and actual repair or construction process, no specific time frame was provided for how long it will take to build a new bridge.

Also adding to the time frame is the fact that active electrical, natural-gas and cable lines have been run across the bridge, said Bove, who estimated that it would cost about $2.15 million to replace the bridge and could take up to four years to complete the work.

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2360, or at

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