Pittsburgh's broken bridges and the pols who neglect them

If you think risking public safety for political gain is a bridge too far, even for a Democrat politician, you need look no farther than Pittsburgh's Councilman Ricky Burgess to dispel any notion of it.

It's only been less than a month since the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh's East End neighborhood collapsed on Jan. 28, coinciding with Biden's already scheduled trip to the city to tout his infrastructure plan.

For Joe Biden, and a beleaguered White House staff, waking up to news of bridge's falling must've seemed like a providential gift for an administration desperate for a break from negative news of the president's plummeting poll numbers.

No doubt the president was sincere, like everyone else, in his relief that there were no serious injuries or deaths from the bridge failure, but he must've also felt at least a twinge of relief to finally have an opportunity for a much-needed photo op of him looking presidential.

Later that afternoon, on the day the bridge collapsed, a serious and stoic Joe Biden proclaimed from the edge of the fallen bridge his bewilderment to learn, despite being a "Pennsylvania Boy," that Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges, boasted more bridges than any other city in the world.  Neither the enormity of the heaping mess of tangled bridge structure lying in the deep snowy ravine below before him, where joggers and hikers abound in warmer months, making frequent use of the trails now hidden beneath the rubble, nor that of the nation's crumbling infrastructure in need of replacement daunted Scranton Joe.

Instead, an invigorated Biden would proclaim, "And we're going to fix them all, no joke."

The president had his day before the camera lights.  But apparently, Pittsburghers were kept in the dark for three years about a report issued warning city government of the serious structural issues suffered by the rapidly failing Fern Hollow Bridge.

To many, it would also come as a great surprise to learn that over 100 other bridges in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County alone have "poor" condition ratings.  

I first wrote about this for AT here and here.  Monica Showalter followed up with her own excellent reporting on the shocking evidence of how the funds earmarked for repairing Pittsburgh bridges were diverted to former Democrat mayor Bill Peduto's pet projects like building citywide bike lanes.

As might be expected, the bridge collapse resulted in a lot of blame-shifting and political posturing by Pittsburgh's Democrat-controlled council and mayor's office.  Calls for greater transparency on the seriousness of the city's crumbling infrastructure were widely cited as necessary if citizens were to be alerted to the great need to support infrastructure reclamation and if they were to regain the trust that their representatives in the city government still had their best interest in mind.

So it seemed only natural that Democrat city councilman Corey O'Connor, whose district the Fern Hollow Bridge fell within, would urgently propose two make-sense infrastructure bills to the city council.

According to Julian Routh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, O'Conner "deemed a 'win for transparency' a bill requiring the city to provide regular, public update reports on the status of city-owned infrastructure."  And a second "one forming an advisory commission on how to improve and maintain the city's bridges and tunnels."

Surprisingly, other council members seemed to hit the brakes on both proposals faster than the PAT transit bus driver did before the bus he was driving, and he and the two other persons aboard, drove off the edge of the collapsing Fern Hollow Bridge, coming safely to a stop, hung up on a portion of the bridge decking that didn't fall to the bottom of the ravine.

The second proposal of creating a commission was delayed because some members, as Routh reported, first wished to "see a greater focus on equity, diversity and expertise on its membership."  But it was the first proposal that is most revealing about Democratic Councilman Ricky Burgess's desire for greater transparency.

According to Routh, Burgess quickly objected to O'Connor's call for public update reports as being tantamount to "legislative malpractice" because Burgess "warned that it would open the city up to lawsuits."

This assertion apparently was too much for even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board, normally docile to the city's Democrat machine, to remain quiet about.  In a Feb. 20 scathing editorial, the paper accused Burgess of having "managed to exceed this esteemed body's usual shenanigans," further calling Burgess's "plea that Pittsburgh should not publicize the condition of city-owned infrastructure because such disclosures could increase the likelihood of lawsuits against the city ... truly extraordinary in its blatant disregard for the public's welfare." 

To Burgess's insistence that the "council has a fiduciary duty to protect the city," the editorial board could conceal its indignation behind a single word: "bull."  The board would also allege that what "Burgess is really proposing is a cover-up."  And what he is seeking to cover most can be found in the editorial's title: "their official behinds."

For now, both of O'Connor's proposed bills will be tabled; whether, if they are ever brought up again, they will prove to be a "win for transparency" as touted is unknown.  But one thing seems for certain: Burgess has been fully transparent in his response to the legislation.  And the good people of Pittsburgh, even its usual liberal allies at the Post-Gazette, can see right through him.  What really worries him about publicizing the condition of city-owned infrastructure is not so much the potential for lawsuits against the city, but what it would reveal about where city council's priorities have been these past many years.

More to the point, as the board put it, "Burgess fears: The ability of the public to hold him and his colleagues, past and present, accountable for decades of failing to prioritize basic repairs and maintenance."

Image: Screen shot from CNN video posted on YouTube.

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