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Liberty Bridge open again, but with a 9-ton limit on vehicles

| Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, 2:30 p.m.
Traffic moves across the Liberty Bridge after PennDOT reopened it, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Traffic moves across the Liberty Bridge after PennDOT reopened it, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
The Liberty Bridge on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The Liberty Bridge on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
Smoke is seen billowing from a fire on the Liberty Bridge in Pittsburgh on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.
Matt Michalko
Smoke is seen billowing from a fire on the Liberty Bridge in Pittsburgh on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.

Cars crossed the Liberty Bridge on Monday for the first time since a fire hot enough to warp steel closed — and nearly collapsed — the vital river crossing between the south suburbs and Downtown 24 days ago.

Repair crews worked through the weekend to strengthen and straighten the portion of the bridge's truss damaged by the fire Sept. 2. PennDOT District 11 Executive Dan Cessna described those repairs as “extremely successful.”

Concerns about the bridge's strength remain. A new, state police-enforced weight restriction prohibits vehicles weighing nine tons or more, including buses and tri-axle trucks, from using the bridge; and additional repairs are needed to restore the bridge's pre-fire, 30-ton weight limit capacity. Port Authority of Allegheny County buses haven't used the bridge since 2011 when that weight limit was imposed.

Cessna stressed that the Monongahela River crossing is safe for cars, pickup trucks and ambulances. He said a team of engineers from 16 different organizations certified their individual contributions to the bridge's repair before PennDOT's district engineer reviewed those certifications.

“The reality was, if the bridge wasn't safe, we wouldn't reopen it,” Cessna said.

The repairs redistributed the force that had shifted from the bridge's damaged, downstream truss to the undamaged, upstream truss. They involved heating and straightening damaged steel and realigning a portion of the bridge's truss by 1 58 inches longitudinally, and about 1 14 inches laterally, Cessna said. Gauges showed the work shifted about 1.6 million pounds of force from the upstream truss back to the downstream truss.

“The process went very well,” Cessna said. “It went like clockwork, according to what we expected, and much quicker than we expected.”

The permanent repairs still needed will strengthen the upstream truss with additional steel to handle the added force on that side of the bridge.

Cessna said PennDOT continues to develop those repair plans. Officials hope to limit the additional work to a “few weeks maximum,” he said.

The additional repairs shouldn't require additional weekday bridge closures but could involve shutting the bridge down during some weekends.

The bridge normally carries about 55,000 vehicles a day. That traffic was forced to find alternate routes while the bridge was closed, and many drivers reported frustrating traffic build-ups at the Fort Pitt Bridge, Fort Pitt Tunnel and West End Bridge.

A trickle of motorists returned to the Liberty Bridge shortly after it reopened about 3:30 p.m. At about the same time, a repair barge equipped with a crane and loaded with work crews left its position under the damaged truss and returned to the river's south shore.

The fire that damaged the bridge occurred as West Deer-based contractor Joseph B. Fay Co. worked on an $80 million rehabilitation project originally expected to last through the 2017 construction season.

Cessna said engineers are working to determine when the greater rehabilitation work can resume and whether the fire and closure will affect that project's time line.

Fay was penalized about $213,600 per weekday and $72,000 per weekend while the bridge and a ramp to Boulevard of the Allies remained closed. Cessna said PennDOT has reduced the penalty — referred to in the project contract as “liquid asset damages” — to about $18,000 per weekday while the nine-ton restriction is in place.

He added final damages “will probably be in dispute for a long time.”

Fay remains responsible for all costs associated with the repairs.

Executive Vice President Jim Wilkinson wrote in a written statement that Fay was pleased the bridge reopened and that the company, “our many subcontractors and suppliers are committed to completing the ongoing Liberty Bridge rehabilitation project.”

“The hard work of hundreds of dedicated men and women over the last several weeks has made it possible for the Liberty Bridge to reopen,” the statement said.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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