In the larger scheme of things, Emsworth's Center Avenue Bridge is far from the Port Authority's biggest headache these days. But some say it's emblematic of an unusual dilemma confronting the cash-strapped transit agency.
The Center Avenue Bridge, which runs over Camp Horne Road in Emsworth, is a former trolley bridge that was converted to roadway use decades ago. In May, state inspectors determined that the bridge was structurally deficient and imposed a five-ton weight restriction. Since the average Port Authority bus weighs approximately three times that much, transit officials have been forced to detour two buses -- the 17B and 19L -- until the bridge is fixed.
The Center Avenue Bridge isn't closed to cars and other small vehicles, says Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie. "But the buses are essentially too heavy now."
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which owns roughly 25,000 bridges, is responsible for inspecting all of the state's bridges. But the state agency is only responsible for maintaining the bridges it owns. Maintenance costs for the state's 6,400 other bridges must be paid by the local townships or agencies that own them.
The Center Avenue Bridge, it turns out, is one of 80 owned by the Port Authority. Inherited from the Pittsburgh Railways Company when the Port Authority replaced numerous failing private transportation companies in 1964, the bridge has long been shared by buses and other vehicles.
Now, however, the struggling transit agency currently owns a bridge it can't even use.
"It's sort of a quirky thing for us," says Ritchie.
Earlier this summer, Port Authority officials announced its latest batch of bad news. The transit agency is projecting a $47.1 million operating deficit for the upcoming year. Such a significant financial hole, Port Authority officials said, could result in cutting service by 25 percent or more, raising fares and eliminating hundreds of jobs.
But owning 80 bridges certainly isn't helping the transit agency dig its way out. In fact, says Ritchie, those bridges cost the Port Authority roughly $6 million a year to maintain. "It's another need we have to pay for," he says. "We could use that money to improve other aspects of our transit system."
While most of the Port Authority-owned bridges carry busways or light-rail lines, Ritchie says 11 of them, including the Center Avenue Bridge, are highway-only bridges which buses share with other vehicles. He doesn't know exactly how much it costs the transit agency to maintain the Center Avenue Bridge alone, but estimates maintenance costs of the 11 highway-only bridges at roughly $1.5 million a year.
Currently, Ritchie says the Center Avenue Bridge is the only Port Authority bridge without any bus traffic. But "We're heading in that direction with other bridges," he says, noting that the Tassey Hollow Bridge, in North Braddock, and the Brookside Boulevard Bridge, in Bethel Park, are both in "poor condition" and could eventually be subject to weight restrictions. "Are we going to have another Emsworth in a year?"
Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, says the Port Authority "should not be in the business" of owning bridges used for anything but mass transit. "If [a bridge] is for their use, it makes sense for them to own it," he says. "But if it's for public use, it does not make sense."
"It's kind of stupid for [the Port Authority] to own these bridges," agrees Allegheny County Councilor Matt Drozd, whose district includes Emsworth's Center Avenue Bridge. "It really should be PennDOT."
Ritchie says the Port Authority has discussed relinquishing ownership of its bridges. But PennDOT doesn't want to take them on. "We all have our own struggles," Ritchie says. "To take that added expense would be difficult for anybody."
"Public resources are scarce," agrees PennDOT spokesperson Jim Struzzi. Adding the Port Authority's bridges to the state's load "has been discussed ... but we have no interest in taking over any more bridges."
Ritchie says the agency's engineers are currently examining the condition of the Center Avenue Bridge to determine how serious the damage is and what kind of fix -- long-term or short-term -- is most appropriate. (He estimates that a full repair would cost the Port Authority more than $1 million.) Meanwhile, transit officials are coming to grips with the fact that the agency won't be leaving the bridge-owning business anytime soon.
"Does it make the most sense that a highway agency own and maintain a bridge, or a transit agency?" Ritchie asks. "We don't think we're the ideal place, but we are stuck with that burden right now."