I love bridges, and I could hardly pick a better city to love them in. Pittsburgh, by one count, has 446. (Put that in your pasta bowl, Venice.)
The city's dedicating a new bridge Friday afternoon, though it's been up for more than a year. The funky footbridge, designed by Sheila Klein, spans railroad tracks and the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to connect East Liberty and Shadyside. It became an especially crucial link in March when the creaky old South Highland Avenue vehicular bridge was taken out so it could be replaced with something sturdier.
I used the footbridge Tuesday, which offers a seamless stroll from the Eastside stores of recent vintage to the venerable galleries, antique shops and eateries along Ellsworth Avenue. The bridge cost a couple of million bucks, but it's pretty with its glass orbs, sequins and black-white-and-gold surface, and it meets plenty of pairs of feet.
Pretty and functional beats ugly and useless. That's the way too many North Side bridges have gone in the past decade. The Davis Avenue Bridge was demolished in 2009 after being closed to cars for eight years, and at least three footbridges are out as well.
In a state with 4,000 structurally deficient bridges, maybe that's par for the course, but it's no way for our city of bridges to operate. (We don't want Venice pulling back ahead in the bridge count, so here's hoping the Venetians are blind to our setbacks.) Footbridges may never get the notice that their vehicular brethren do, but their losses are felt by the thousands within walking distance.
I live down the street from Allegheny Commons, the oldest public park west of the Allegheny Mountains, as North Siders are happy to tell you. When our younger daughter was 2 years old, the city shut down the century-old concrete bridge that spanned the four railroad tracks in the big old ditch that slices through the park.
Thus the short walk from the playground to the duck pond, a never-give-it-a-thought tradition for generations of nearby families, was no more. The bridge was supposed to be out a couple of years. It's now been 11. Ghetto palms sprout from what's left of its fenced-off surface. Its return is not imminent.
Here's how nothing happens: Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks, wants a 23-foot clearance for double-decked freight trains. The old arched bridge has only 20-foot clearance on the outside tracks. The city submitted plans for a taller bridge as far back as 1998, but the city Historic Review Commission nixed the design.
Then there's the money. A new bridge will cost at least $1.1 million. That would be about half the price of the East Liberty/Shadyside footbridge (funded by PennDOT and a pile of foundation and corporate money), but it's not easy to find.
Alida Baker is director of the Allegheny Commons Initiative that goes back a dozen years, and she has a notebook on this bridge the size of "War and Peace." The one she has on the nearby West Ohio Street vehicular bridge over the same tracks is more like the complete works of Leo Tolstoy. There are about as many characters and plot twists as in the great Russian novels, too.
A design concept for a new footbridge with sweet sloping paths has made the rounds in community conversations. Those who care most about access tend to like it, though diehards for the existing bridge and its arches aren't so thrilled.
There's some hope that the city will owe the park something if it has to take out trees or do any other damage when it raises the West Ohio Street bridge for taller trains. Maybe reknitting the pond to the playground with a new footbridge can be the penance for any such sin. Some dreamers even hope that Norfolk Southern might lower the tracks, the way CSX is doing on the South Side for its tall trains, and allow a "green tunnel" to make one contiguous park with trains traveling out of sight beneath it.
Anything beats a fractured park.
That's a long way of wishing a long and productive life to "Shady Liberty," the new footbridge in the East End that will have its dedication at 4 p.m. Friday. We need to treasure our don't-think-twice shortcuts. Like Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.