Photo by Kristina Schmitt
The McKees Rocks Bridge is set to start renovations come summer and is projected to be completed by fall 2023.
By William McCloskey
People are worried about their bridges in Allegheny County, and with good reason after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in Pittsburgh's East End. It seems the bigger the bridge, the greater the worry.
Now the McKees Rocks Bridge, by far the largest in the county, is soon to undergo extensive renovation with major impact for Ohio River communities which depend on it with some 24,000 vehicles crossing daily – an average of 1,000 per hour.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which is managing the work, recently sent to potential contractors an extremely detailed project prospectus with bidding to occur within weeks, followed by contract letting to accommodate this summer's construction season.
PennDOT says the work will focus on the bridge's sidewalks, gusset plates, deck spalls, concrete barriers, back walls and pedestrian railings plus installation of a new sidewalk protective fence.
The work will be performed in daylight hours only and is slated to commence this summer, with completion by fall 2023 – 16 months in all.
Because of the bridge's uniquely complicated configuration, much of the work will involve the extensive ramps and complex intersections at both the Route 51 and Route 65 ends.
"McKees Rocks Bridge" is something of a misnomer because it's actually a system of several linked bridges totaling 3,754 feet – seven-tenths of a mile – with the main span directly above the Ohio River measuring 750 feet. The whole thing was built in 1930, opened to traffic in 1931, and last rehabilitated in 1987.
Only the central arch is over water. Most of the bridge complex is above industrial and railroad properties on both riverbanks that date to the onset of steam riverboat and railroad transportation that arrived in the Pittsburgh area beginning in the 1800s.
The bridge was designed by the renowned George S. Richardson and features elaborate Art Deco pylon sculpture features by Frank Vittor, who did similar work on the George Westinghouse Bridge in the electric valley,
After two years of construction, the bridge opened on Aug. 19, 1931.
The grand opening was celebrated with a parade consisting of more than 2,000 automobiles. In 1988, the McKees Rocks Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Why is the bridge so complicated with so many different types spans making up its length?
The historic record is silent except to note that bridge technology and metallurgy were relatively primitive in the 1920s. Plus, the land on both ends of it already was spoken-for and privately owned by industrial entities and had to be built around.
The 30-degree curve in the bridge, for example, was necessary to clear existing features on the land, like the old historic "Indian Burial Mound" in the Bottoms.
For bridge aficionados, the professional engineers at the expert pghbridges.com explain it this way: "The river span makes up only 1/10 of the length of this group which is practically a pattern book of bridge types. It is a complex string of structures stretching nearly 1.5 miles across the wide, flat valley of the Ohio River. From west to east, there are two through-crescent arches of 300-foot span each; 1,145 feet of terra firma; eight-deck trusses, about 163 feet each; one cantilever deck truss of approximately 194 feet; a river span that is a two-hinged trussed arch of 750 feet; three cantilever trusses of 338, 324, and 334 feet; and a 77-foot deck girder, for a total length with approaches of almost 7,300 feet."
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh writer, editor & historian. Contact him at PGHNews.firstname.lastname@example.org