The 40th Street Bridge isn’t the most iconic bridge in Pittsburgh, but in terms of shoddy sidewalks, trash, broken glass, and walkways that go without shoveling and salt every winter, it’s in a league of its own. Or at least it used to be.
Due to its unique location linking Pittsburgh to Millvale, the bridge’s heavily-trafficked sidewalks have historically been relegated to a jurisdictional no man’s land — the Pittsburgh DPW, Millvale DPW, and PennDOT have been playing an extended game of “not it.” PennDOT plows the car lanes during storms, but that just ends up shooting snow and gravel onto the sidewalks that neither Pittsburgh nor Millvale take responsibility for clearing.
But at some point in the past couple years, pedestrians and cyclists on the bridge might have noticed a change: walkways suddenly salted and shoveled, less garbage, and trash cans chained to the bridge bearing a magic-marker scribbled message reading: “Volunteer maintained bridge. Keep it clean, Yinz.”
For the most part, that's "volunteer," singular: Dani Kramer. She’s a Millvale resident, bike-courier, as well as the co-owner of Pin Up Posters Courier Collective. As a frequent user of the bridge, she was fed up with all the flat tires and around two years ago, decided to just take care of the bridge herself.
“I just don't like looking at the same trash every day on my commute,” says Kramer. “There are organizations that have volunteer workers to do the trails, but if it's not getting done, I just do it myself.”
Though her approach has evolved since she started, an average session goes like this: Kramer loads up her cargo bike with a broom, dustpan, buckets, garbage bags, gloves, a hatchet, and water. She starts at one end of the bridge, clearing debris out of the sewage drains and collecting litter. The trash bags are dropped in the cans she installed on either side of the bridge, and once they're full, she hauls them to a dumpster in Millvale or Lawrenceville, depending on which side she started. The garbage pickup takes an hour or so.
During the winter, her load is considerably lighter, with just a shovel, broom, and salt. Depending on the severity of the storm, shoveling and salting can take up to five hours. While she cares about the aesthetics of a clean bridge, in the winter, Kramer's focus is strictly on making the sidewalks safe for travel. The bridge has sharrows (which amount to nothing more than paint on the road reminding drivers cyclists might share the lane), but even as an experienced city cyclist, Kramer says it's too dangerous. Most people opt for the sidewalks, so in addition to the uneven, slick surfaces, glass and trash, the path is also highly trafficked.
By February 2018, Kramer started a GoFundMe campaign called "Pay The Bridge Toll," to help ramp up her efforts. She'd been cleaning the bridge sporadically (she already has two jobs) but wanted to commit to consistent sessions in 2018. In twelve months, she's raised $2,470 (of a $2,000 goal) to pay for her cargo bike, with all the other expenses going to cleaning supplies. The community support was nice, but still frustrating that she had to resort to crowdfunding when the local government should have taken responsibility.
Then, almost exactly a year after she started the GoFundMe campaign, something happened. A DPW worker was spotted on the 40th Street Bridge sidewalk, salting and clearing the snow after the Feb. 10 storm. Kramer had long been in contact with officials to no avail: representatives from Pittsburgh, Millvale, and PennDOT, members of BikePGH, as well as Mayor Peduto's chief of staff Dan Gilman, and Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross. Kramer believes it was Gilman and Gross who finally got the Pittsburgh DPW to address the issue.
When reached for an explanation, Tim McNulty, communications director for the city of Pittsburgh, emailed Pittsburgh City Paper that "there were rounds and rounds of talks on which government agency should be responsible for the sidewalks (among PennDOT, Pittsburgh and Millvale) and rather than dealing with endless red tape, the city's Department of Public Works finally decided to just take the job over." McNulty says Pittsburgh DPW plans to handle the bridge's sidewalk maintenance going forward.
"I'm not sure exactly what finally got the job done. Slowly but surely, the squeaky wheel finally got the grease," says Kramer. "That's the big lesson I learned here. I felt so hopeless about getting this simple thing accomplished for so long, but I kept at it and people started to hear and care."
Kramer is happy to have the snow issue resolved, though she's still waiting to hear what can be done to have the trash picked up. In the meantime, she'll continue to do it herself.