In the midst of the city's financial writhings, there're two surprising flashes of good news: The City Planning department has found enough change in the seat cushions to actually finish the bicycle-pedestrian half of the Hot Metal Bridge, and a study is underway to see if as many as five new bike lanes could be marked on city streets.
The first of two parallel Hot Metal spans -- the one for cars, with literally no room for pedestrians -- was opened in June 2000, with a promissory note to cyclists and walkers for the second span. There was a false start in November of that year, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority granting a contract for the demolition of the old rails on the second bridge. After that, hopes for the project seemed to vanish: If the city couldn't afford rodent control, what was the likelihood of a bike bridge?
"We've been scarfing away money" for the Hot Metal improvements from bits and pieces of federal road-enhancement grants, says Senior City Planner Richard Meritzer. Assistant Director of City Planning Patrick Hassett adds that other funds have come from "very complicated and diverse" sources, including foundations and state government, adding up to about $6.5 million. That money will also build an additional bike-pedestrian connection between the Eliza Furnace Trail and the bridge.
Plans are being debuted at a public meeting Aug. 18.
"It's super because this has been our number-one trail priority," Hassett says. "It's the critical missing link in our trail system," connecting the seven miles of trail from the Duquesne Incline to the Glenwood Bridge on the South Side and on to the Panther Hollow and Eliza Furnace trails running from Oakland to Downtown.
The Hot Metal Bridge is also a missing link in the Great Allegheny Passage, a non-motor route between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. via Cumberland, Md.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is managing the project, hasn't yet solicited bids, Hassett says; a URA representative did not return calls by press time. Hassett hopes any remaining demolition work on the bridge can happen this fall, with construction starting next season, possibly continuing through 2006.
Incidentally, it's the bike-ped second span that rightfully owns the "Hot Metal" name. It carried the cars of molten iron from Hazelwood to the South Side and sometimes brought finished or semi-finished steel back to the north shore of the Monongahela, while the larger span carried more typical rail traffic on two sets of track.
Meanwhile, other, more grass-roots efforts for cycling may be about to bear fruit, says Dave Hoffman, founder of Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy group that emphasizes the use of bikes as transportation, not just recreation. The efforts of mainstream Bike Pittsburgh and the more fringe Free Ride activists have spurred the City Planning department to consider creating more bike lanes in the city. The sole city bike lane is on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill. "We've had people actually driving up it because there's less traffic," Meritzer says. Offending motorists will sometimes call the city, complaining, he reports: "'How dare someone give me a ticket for just driving on the street!'"
The city's cycle pioneers aren't afraid of motorized traffic: Free Ride volunteer and Bike Pittsburgh board member Jessica McPherson regularly rides through Uptown on car-choked Forbes Avenue rather than the safer -- but slower -- Eliza Furnace Trail. But, Hoffman says, a better environment is needed to make transportation cycling popular beyond the dedicated cycling core.
Demands for bike lanes in Pittsburgh have often been dismissed out of hand because orthodox traffic engineering standards say the city's streets aren't wide enough. However, the city has just contracted with transportation engineering firm Trans Associates to study whether a more realistic standard could be devised that would permit the lanes. Trans Associates' contract includes funds for "up to five work orders" to create marked bike lanes on city streets.
City Planning's Meritzer says the $15,000 study should be finished this fall.
Dave Hoffman, who founded Bike Pittsburgh after being sideswiped by a car on Negley Avenue in East Liberty -- the driver didn't stop -- knows bikes' hazards well. He says lanes will improve drivers' behavior, too: "You can shout 'Share the road!' all you want, but it'll piss people off. People will change when their environment changes. When they see bike lanes and racks, it'll affect them subconsciously."