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NTSB report shows importance of bridge inspections

The final report about the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh is another reminder of how critical routine maintenance, good inspections and responsible stewardship are.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report a little more than two years after the bridge collapsed, sending a bus and several other vehicles into a ravine and injuring several people. And the report is stark in its conclusions.

It shows that for more than a decade before the Jan. 28, 2022, collapse, problems were evident with the bridge, but repair recommendations were ignored.

“The city of Pittsburgh was responsible for inspecting and maintaining the Fern Hollow Bridge,” said NTSB senior structural engineer Dan Walsh. “Similar maintenance and repair recommendations were made in the inspection reports for more than 15 years leading up to the collapse. But the city failed to act on them, resulting in progressive corrosion to the point of failure.”

The city — and everyone who used the bridge in the years leading up to the collapse — is lucky no one died when the bridge fell. Four people were hurt, and two sustained serious injuries.

But that doesn’t change that recommendations to fix the bridge weren’t acted on, and that was a breach of the duty elected officials have to the public.

One of the primary roles of the government at all levels is to ensure the safety of residents. In the wake of the Fern Hollow collapse, Pittsburgh created a new Bridge Maintenance Division and increased funding for bridge maintenance and repairs by 300%, but it shouldn’t take a disaster to get governments to do basic maintenance on roads and bridges.

In Butler County, there are 503 bridges listed on the PennDOT bridge condition reports, with 148 of those maintained by the state and 355 maintained by municipalities. Of those, 70 are currently rated in poor condition — 38 of those are state-maintained and 32 are locally maintained.

Bridge safety can’t be reduced to a single rating, and just because a bridge is rated in poor condition doesn’t necessarily make it unsafe. The release of the final NTSB report on the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, however, is a reminder of exactly how important good inspections and commitment to infrastructure maintenance and repair are.

Elected officials must ensure the roads and bridges we drive on — and that our tax money is supposed to maintain — don’t crumble beneath us.

— JK

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