Decrepit Kenmawr Bridge to be replaced

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The days are numbered for the decrepit Kenmawr Bridge linking Swissvale and Rankin.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is planning an estimated $9 million replacement project for 2017 and 2018, district executive Dan Cessna said at a public meeting this week.

And while the current 104-year-old span is too feeble to carry Port Authority buses, the new bridge may be designed to accommodate a future extension of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, he said.

"We're evaluating what it would take to widen it for a busway extension if it ever happens," Mr. Cessna said. "We don't want to preclude future transportation options, knowing the challenges that exist through the east suburbs."

The process will include gathering public input about the impact of a wider bridge, which might cost more and require more land acquisition, he said.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said while there are no current plans to extend the busway, the idea has been talked about for several years and remains an item of interest to the transit agency.

PennDOT approached the authority about building a bridge that would be wide enough for a busway extension, he said. "We're working together to design something that can accommodate the transit piece as well as the PennDOT piece."

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A smaller bridge might have to be torn down in a few years if the authority decides to extend the busway, Mr. Cessna said. "We don't think that's a wise long-term decision."

Of more immediate concern to those who cross the bridge is continued inaction by Norfolk Southern Railway on repairs needed to increase the posted weight limit of 6 tons, which prohibits anything heavier than a delivery van from using it.

The bridge crosses Norfolk Southern tracks and the railroad is responsible for maintaining the superstructure and substructure. PennDOT wrote the company nearly a year ago, warning that "it may become necessary to lower the [weight limit] even further or close the bridge within the next few years, if certain repairs are not completed soon."

The letter listed 10 repairs needed to restore a previous 12-ton weight limit and asked the railroad to do them "as soon as possible," but nothing has happened.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon issued a statement saying the railroad "wants to operate a safe network, we want to serve the community as a responsible corporate member, and we're looking at what are the best options to address the immediate and long-term challenges."

A 1989 Public Utility Commission order requires Norfolk Southern to maintain the bridge sufficiently to allow 15-ton vehicles to use it. PennDOT recently asked the PUC to hold a field conference on the issue. It is scheduled for next week.

The replacement bridge will be built with a combination of funds from the federal and state governments and the railroad, Mr. Cessna said. Once the new bridge is built, the PUC will determine who is responsible for maintaining it.

An inspection in 2012 caused the lowering of the weight limit, which had been 12 tons (with a 22-ton limit for combination vehicles), early last year. That forced Port Authority to reroute its buses, adding 15 to 20 minutes to travel times.

Repairs to restore the weight limit "would be ideal for transit service as buses now follow indirect paths to the area," Mr. Ritchie said. "Also, if any other bridges were to become weight-restricted, we'd have great difficulty providing transit service to the area."

The bridge carries Braddock Avenue, a major feeder to the Parkway East interchange in Swissvale and a main route to Kennywood Park in West Mifflin. An average of 15,000 vehicles per day use it.

The bridge is rated structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, and on Pennsylvania's 100-point sufficiency scale, it grades at 2, one of the lowest scores in the state. The sidewalks on both sides are closed and a narrow walkway straddles one of the travel lanes, separated from vehicles by a makeshift chain-link fence.

During the 2012 inspection, workers observed several overweight trucks crossing the bridge, at a time when the weight limit was double what it is now.

The inspection report was filled with findings of corroded and cracked steel, peeling paint and cracked and spalling concrete throughout the bridge's superstructure and substructure, both of which were rated in poor condition. It estimated the repair costs at $461,000.

The bridge replacement is one of several previously unfunded projects made possible by the Legislature's and Gov. Tom Corbett's enactment of transportation funding legislation last fall.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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