Pittsburgh is more than a city of steel. It is also the City of Bridges. It has more of them than Venice, Italy — a city that is most easily traveled by boat. Venice has 443 bridges. Pittsburgh had 446.
Today it has 445.
That last bridge, where Forbes Avenue crosses Fern Hollow Creek in Frick Park, collapsed into the ravine below Friday morning.
In a twist of dramatic irony, the city already was slated for a visit from President Joe Biden during which he would discuss infrastructure.
There is no better example of infrastructure than a bridge. It is a construction that connects where you are with where you are going. It is both firmly grounded and floating on aspirational air. Bridges are necessary, practical and commercial. Try to maintain an economy anywhere without a bridge. You can’t do it.
At the same time, a collapsed bridge is the perfect metaphor for infrastructure that isn’t maintained. Bridges are made of metal and stone, materials that are firm but that don’t last forever — not without careful shepherding to keep them strong, especially in a climate awash with cold and precipitation that is fought with salt.
Pittsburgh isn’t just the City of Bridges. Pittsburgh is a poster child for bridges that need to be maintained. That need to be fixed and supported and improved. And that doesn’t always happen.
Remember that it was only in 2015 that the Greenfield Bridge was demolished. That bridge built in 1922 started to crumble in the 1980s. Rather than being fixed, it was netted when crumbling pieces of it injured people. Did that help? Not really. By 2003, the next step in not fixing it was to build a second framework underneath — a bridge under a bridge to keep the breaking bridge from falling onto people and cars.
This just points to the problem with infrastructure. We recognize its importance. We recognize its dangers. And when a catastrophe occurs — the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007 or the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University in 2018 — there are calls to do more and better but ultimately not enough.
Infrastructure is a political box to check that makes its way into speeches but is somehow always deprioritized in budgets. And now the state is trying to find ways to fix bridges with tolls instead of actual investment.
Biden’s visit follows the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed in November, but the collapse follows decades of fixing our most important structures with the least investment possible. There is no excuse for that with this bridge or any of the other 445 in Pittsburgh or the hundreds of others across Pennsylvania.