Low-priority bridge projects close off North Side residents

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

North Side residents have been lobbying for years to have two bridges in the neighborhood rebuilt, but funding and Pittsburgh's higher-priority infrastructure needs have stymied their efforts.

The city in 2007 closed the Wilksboro Avenue footbridge, a Victorian-era walkway stretching nearly 400 feet over a Brighton Heights gorge, because of structural deficiencies, according to a city engineer's report.

It demolished the larger Davis Avenue Bridge, in Brighton Heights, for the same reasons in 2009.

“The Davis Avenue Bridge is an important connector for the northern neighborhoods,” said Mark Fatla, director of the North Side Leadership Conference.

“Right now, Brighton Heights is disconnected from Riverview Park, and it pushes traffic onto other streets, like Woods Run Avenue. It disconnects things like school bus routes. People in Observatory Hill have more difficult access to things like the drug store in Brighton Heights.”

Neighbors consider the Wilksboro Bridge, built around 1895 when people walked or caught streetcars to work, a special asset. The bridge permitted residents from a western section of Brighton Heights to cross the ravine and catch streetcars on California Avenue.

It served the same purpose for buses in later years, said Pete Bellisario, 72, a former president of the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation who lives in the neighborhood.

“They can't do that now,” he said.

City Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Garden, whose district includes Brighton Heights, said she's earmarked $420,000 in the capital budget to repair the Wilksboro bridge and advocated for federal highway money to rebuild the Davis bridge. City engineers estimated in 2007 it would cost $700,000 to $800,000 for a total rehabilitation of the Wilksboro span.

She and Fatla said the Davis bridge has been on a schedule to receive federal funding, but it's been pushed back time and again for projects deemed more critical. The estimated cost of replacement is about $8 million.

“It isn't fair to the community,” Harris said. “They tore the heart out of the North Side when they built a mall and they built highways through the North Side. We should be able to at least rebuild these bridges.”

Mayor Bill Peduto said the federal government changed guidelines for municipalities receiving highway money, and funding is based strictly on need.

As a result, Peduto said, the city must prioritize projects that affect the most residents, and use its capital budget carefully to maximize leverage for additional money.

“Twenty years ago, you could go to a senator or a congressman and get an earmark for a specific project,” he said. “You can't do that anymore.”

The Urban Redevelopment Authority paid $1.5 million to build a pedestrian bridge connecting the Eastside shopping complex to Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. The new bridge opened in 2012.

Patrick Miner, 29, of Squirrel Hill, a bridge engineer-in-training who has studied the bridges, said more and more people are seeking communities where walking to work and the store is an option.

“Americans are starting to drive less and less,” he said. “The better connections we have for walking and biking and how they interact with mass transit, I think, are only going to make those connections more valuable gradually over time.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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