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Former Turnpike bridge piers may remain

| Friday, June 25, 2010

by MICHAEL AUBELE

Valley News Dispatch

The piers that supported the old Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge crossing the Allegheny River likely will remain standing long after the rest of the span is demolished.

At some point, they could carry a pedestrian bridge across the river as part of a proposed Allegheny County park and trail system that would run the length of the Allegheny River from Harrison Hills in Harrison to Pittsburgh.

At least that's what former Allegheny County Councilman Dave Fawcett of Oakmont has in mind.

And on Thursday, he won support for at least a small part his proposal -- leaving the former Turnpike bridge's piers intact -- from the Turnpike Commission's top official.

"I think it's a no-brainer," said Turnpike CEO Joseph G. Brimmeier.

He told members of county council's parks committee that Turnpike officials would draft an agreement to transfer ownership of the piers to the county. The goal would be for council to approve the agreement during its July 13 meeting.

July 13 is the day crews are set to demolish a large section of the bridge's steel superstructure, using explosives to bring down the framework. A second demolition is set for the end of the month to bring down the rest of the superstructure.

Brimmeier, who talked with committee members via teleconference, said Turnpike officials need a legal agreement in place by mid-July.

With one exception, committee members voiced their support for the plan.

Council President Rich Fitzgerald said support from council as a whole should be "overwhelming."

Councilman Matt Drozd, who also participated by phone, adamantly refused to back the proposal, saying the county would assume a safety liability by taking ownership of the piers.

He also said spending money on maintain the piers would mean less would be available for roads and bridges.

Councilman Bob Macey said in response that any maintenance costs would fall under the parks budget and not the public works budget.

Brimmeier suggested the cost to maintain the piers shouldn't reach beyond adding them to the county's liability insurance.

He said, structurally, the piers are sound.

"They'll outlive the next five generations," Brimmeier said. "They're not going anywhere."

Councilman Nick Futules of Verona, the parks committee chairman, raised a concern about the possibility the piers might suffer damage when the superstructure is demolished.

Brimmeier said the piers shouldn't suffer damage and indicated that if they did, the county wouldn't be forced to assume ownership.

If council agrees to maintain the piers, the Turnpike Commission will still be forced to pay the cost of demolishing them, Brimmeier said. That cost is built into the existing demolition contract.

A dollar figure for demolition of the piers wasn't immediately available.

Fawcett said it would be premature to estimate costs for the proposed pedestrian bridge. There are no trails for the bridge to connect with, which still could be the case in five years to 10 years, he said.

"I think it's prudent for us, as a region, to look at this," Fawcett said. "We need to look at the opportunities we have and remain sensitive to the 'greening' of the region."

Michael Aubele can be reached at maubele@tribweb.com.

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