Photo by Nancy Zionts/Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed during the early hours of Jan. 28, injuring 10 people. The bridge – maintained by Pittsburgh – was deemed in poor condition by PennDOT when last inspected in 2021.
When the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed hours before President Joe Biden landed in Pittsburgh to tout his sweeping infrastructure initiatives last Friday, pundits seized on the eerie timing at play.
But it’s also worth noting the city-owned bridge collapse on Jan. 28 occurred just a few days after Pittsburgh’s council passed legislation to explore possible annexation and merger proposals with neighboring communities. Allowing a heavily trafficked overpass to collapse from bare neglect is a less than ideal sales pitch for small boroughs or townships wondering whether joining forces with the big boys in the city might enhance their prospects.
A first glance over the numbers looks good for a struggling town such as McKees Rocks, which operates on an approximately $4.5 million annual budget, or $750 when broken down per person. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s $659 million budget works out around three times more spending per resident, even with lower property tax rates factored in.
Adding to this rosy picture, the city maintains nearly double the number of police officers per resident than McKees Rocks and supports a full-time professional fire department with faster response times than any volunteer companies (much as they deserve praise).
Pittsburgh boasts world-class universities, sports teams and private sector services, while its city departments are staffed with far more expertise and resources than struggling steel towns on the periphery. So what’s there to lose?
In case you think we’re being flippant, besides the shattered Fern Hollow Bridge, there are 25 other bridges rated “poor” by PennDOT inside city limits – all need costly repair work. Among that list is the West Carson Street bridge over Chartiers Creek near McKees Rocks, which Pittsburgh only reluctantly repaved after a public shaming campaign led by former McKees Rocks Mayor Jack Muhr when the pothole-riddled asphalt became almost unnavigable four years ago. The structural issues are still unresolved.
The city also encompasses a far denser network of roadways than any neighboring municipality and oversees large professional bureaucracies and paid fire and EMT services. When all is tallied up, maintaining these requires Pittsburgh to spend more dollars per resident than neighboring boroughs and townships.
Let’s not forget Pittsburgh only recently crawled out of a 14-year financial recovery plan and remains anything but prosperous. Meanwhile, many city neighborhoods, including Sheraden, Elliott and Esplen, suffer from high crime and disinvestment, giving no indication struggling communities would improve from a merger.
In a county like Allegheny, which has more municipalities than several entire states, talks of mergers are not without merit – but they don’t by default improve things for two struggling communities willing to join up. In the ruthless arithmetic of musician Billy Preston, “nothing from nothing leaves nothing.”
Pittsburgh wouldn’t profit from taking over McKees Rocks or Stowe – and these towns probably wouldn’t profit from being annexed either. They’d simply become extensions of the city’s already neglected westside region. An extension no less held together by the tenuous West Carson Street Bridge.
Pittsburgh likely would benefit from absorbing affluent, growing communities, like Robinson and Kennedy – but it’s hard to see them entertaining a merger.
Instead, as we’ve argued in previous editorials, western suburbs should consider regional consolidations, like a combined Stowe-McKees Rocks-Robinson-Kennedy or Crafton-Ingram-Green Tree.
In the first scenario, merging would relieve Stowe and McKees Rocks from obvious financial pressures that currently stifle resources. Meanwhile, residents of the prosperous bedroom communities in question might think the idea foolish – but surely they would like to live close to the vibrant historic business districts that Stowe’s Broadway Avenue and McKees Rocks’s Chartiers Avenue surely could be with a little helping hand? In addition to an immediate injection of resources, absorbing these main streets into larger, stable municipalities could fast attract investors currently shy of putting up money here.
All four would be able to share resources and shed duplicate costs, and the combined municipal unit would have far more clout when lobbying for state and county resources.
It’s at least worth thinking about.