Pittsburgh looks for ways to preserve and repair its more than 45,000 city steps

The city has been sued over steps. Now it’s planning to assess them.

Contractors work to replace the steps on Round Top Street.

Contractors work to replace the steps on Round Top Street.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

On Feb. 10, 2015, David E. Lewis Jr. was doing maintenance work in Crafton Heights when he tripped and fell on a set of sidewalk steps on Round Top Street, according to a lawsuit.

Lewis injured his left leg, left hip and lower back and suffered from a loss of mobility, his attorney alleged in a suit filed in January against the City of Pittsburgh and the owners of the property where Lewis was working.

More than two years later, on April 27, The Incline visited Round Top Street to photograph the steps at the center of the Lewis’ lawsuit and observed crews from Baiano Construction replacing them, a project that was provided for and listed in Pittsburgh’s 2015 capital budget. The city awarded that Baldwin-based company a two-year contract to maintain and repair steps and stairs in January 2016.

Marion Geyser has lived in a home across from the steps for more than 50 years. She told The Incline the steps had been in poor condition for more than 20 years, despite neighbors’ repeated requests to the city that they be repaired or replaced. The property owners named in Lewis’ suit, who deny owning the land under the steps, said in a legal filing that their company’s facilities manager “notified the City of Pittsburgh the steps in question were in disrepair.”

“If they got a lawsuit, I can understand why,” Geyser said. She said her neighbors have disabilities and they, along with everyone else in the neighborhood, were “jumping over big pieces of concrete and that. It’s terrible.”

This week, Pittsburgh City Council approved a nearly $100,000 agreement to allow a planning and engineering firm to assess city-owned steps in the public right-of-way. That includes more than 700 stairways — with more than 45,000 steps — that dot the city’s many hills.

That the city’s steps aren’t in great condition isn’t news to Pittsburgh.

To figure out how to finance needed repairs, Pittsburgh last year applied for the Citi Foundation and Living Cities’ City Accelerator program, which seeks to help municipalities design and adopt innovative policies to close infrastructure funding gaps.

“The city only repairs or replaces a few sets of steps each year, which is not enough to preserve the century-old assets,” Pittsburgh wrote in its application. “Pittsburgh is interested in developing a way to more systematically repair and maintain these treasured city assets. We would like to at least double the number of steps repaired or replaced each year, allowing us to cut down on our large maintenance backlog while incorporating new technologies to help preserve these assets longer.”

The Citi Foundation and Living Cities named Pittsburgh a member of its third City Accelerator cohort in March 2016. This year’s operating budget lists a $100,000 grant from Living Cities for the step assessment.

Andrew Dash, assistant director of City Planning, told council this week, “We need to prioritize resources” and understand “the limited resources that we have in the city budget.” In the 2017 capital budget, the city set aside $385,000 for step repair and replacement, including $200,000 for the City Accelerator step assessment, as well as funds for a project in Banksville and one in the South Side.

The city also needs to see where there’s an opportunity for public-private partnerships, Dash said. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said many of the stairs in her district are rights of way to public transportation. “We need Port Authority at the table,” she said at the meeting. “We need to collaborate.”

Contractors work to replace the steps on Round Top St.

Contractors work to replace the steps on Round Top Street

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Issues with city steps have already cost Pittsburgh money. In 2015, council approved a $3,207 payment to a man who fell through a wooden city-owned staircase in Crafton Heights. “They were great in their day, but unfortunately as time has gone on, they have deteriorated,” Guy Costa, Pittsburgh’s chief operations officer, told the Post-Gazette at the time.

At least two suits have been filed this year: one from Lewis and another from Michael Lucas, who tells a similar story. In June 2015, Lucas was at Phillips Park in Carrick when he tripped and fell on a set of steps near a football field, according to a lawsuit filed against the city and Pittsburgh school district this March. His suit said he fractured both heels and was in a hospital for nearly three weeks.

Both Lewis and Lucas’ cases are still pending, with a legal determination about who’s responsible for the steps still up in the air. A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on pending litigation. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants in both cases did not return requests for comment.

The Incline’s visual producer Jasmine Goldband contributed reporting.