Liberty Bridge closure 101: Why the Pittsburgh artery is (still) shut down

Who’s to blame, when it’s expected to reopen and more.

Liberty Bridge fire
Sarah Anne Hughes

It didn’t fall down, but the Liberty Bridge is still closed after a spark from a welder’s tool caused plastic pipes to catch fire, which in turn caused a tarp fire, which in turn caused the near-collapse of the structure on Sept. 2.

Eleven days later, the bridge is still at least six days from reopening to traffic.

Will PennDOT reopen the bridge by Sept. 19, its latest estimate? How much money will the contractor responsible for the fire end up losing? Will the traffic curse be lifted? Let’s review what we know.

Tell me about this bridge. Is it important?

You bet it is. Work to construct the Liberty Bridge, which the state transportation department says carries 55,000 vehicles daily (or it does when it’s, you know, open), began in 1925 — several years after the Liberty Tunnels were completed. For the past nine decades, it’s provided a crucial path into the city from the south.

The Liberty Bridge is certainly not the prettiest in Pittsburgh: It’s a cantilever bridge supported by a deck truss, while the oft-Instagrammed Three Sisters, for example, are suspension bridges painted a flashy yellow (Aztec gold, to be exact).

But as the Historic American Engineering Record notes, it was the “largest, highest and most expensive bridge built in Allegheny County” in 1928. The Liberty Bridge also “helped open up Pittsburgh’s sparsely populated South Hills area to extensive development,” according to the record.

Why is the bridge closed?

By now you’ve probably heard about the fire, which “damaged approximately 30 feet of a compression chord of the deck truss,” PennDOT said in a press release.

Can you explain that in a less technical way?

A really important beam started to melt, which is bad.

A firefighter who helped save the bridge told WTAE’s Bob Mayo that the beam, which should be straight, “looked like an ‘S.’ ”

Who is to blame?

The proverbial finger has been pointed at workers from Joseph B. Fay Co., a locally based company that serves as the general contractor on the rehab project.

I’m full of righteous anger. Will justice be served?

Yes, but first, a clarification: While it has been widely reported that Joseph B. Fay Co. will be fined for the fire, Cessna told The Incline that this characterization is inaccurate.

What have been called “fines” are, in fact, “liquidated damages” that PennDOT collects by reducing payments to the contractor.

“The money is applied to the project,” Cessna said. “These liquidated damages are established as part of the contract.”

That total, if the bridge opens on Sept. 19, could be more than $3.6 million.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating the fire and could possibly issue fines; the maximum fine for a “willful violation” is $126,000.

Wait a minute. Why was there a tarp on the bridge?

It was already under construction. PennDOT began an $80 million rehab project in 2015 and work to replace the bridge’s deck started this spring. Pedestrians haven’t been able to cross the bridge since March, and PennDOT limited the number of available lanes to drivers for months.

I thought the bridge was supposed to reopen last Monday. What happened?

PennDOT revised its estimate last week — from Sept. 12 to Sept. 19 at the earliest — after it learned that it would take longer to manufacture the parts needed to repair the bridge.

“Due to the complexity of fabricating 150 repair parts, the contractor needs to extend the initial time projected to complete the repair,” Daniel Cessna, a local PennDOT representative, said in a release. “Due to the complexity of installing the repair parts, all bolt holes will be drilled onsite, rather than at the fabrication shop.”

How do I get around this mess?

PennDOT has an extensive list of suggestions.

What’s the best way to stay in the Liberty Bridge loop?

PennDOT is sending out email alerts, which you can sign up for by emailing [email protected] with the subject “Subscribe – Liberty Bridge.”

Could this whole thing have been avoided?

Big time, experts told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Best practices include:

  • Things that can catch fire — like plastic pipes — should be kept at least 35 feet from flames
  • At least one person on the crew should be on “fire watch” with an extinguisher, or something else that can put out a fire, handy

Is there anything else I can do?

Unless you have a time machine, there’s not much to do but wait. At the very least, you can make a joke on the internet or show off your entrepreneurial spirit by selling T-shirts.