by Jeanette Lee

At a contentious public hearing Tuesday, more than 100 Northside residents expressed their displeasure with the city’s plans to raise the W. Ohio Street Bridge but leave other bridges on the same track at a lower height.

City officials said that the condition of the West Ohio Street Bridge and the non-functional Ridge Avenue Bridge required immediate action in order to ensure the safety of pedestrians and motorists.

They said that their options were limited by standards set by the Public Utility Commission, which has ordered that the new West Ohio Street and Ridge Avenue Bridges — which currently have a 19 foot clearance — meet a 22 foot clearance to allow railroad company Norfolk-Southern’s double-stacked trains to go through.

Northsiders also questioned the practicality of raising the West Ohio Street Bridge to accommodate taller trains, but leaving a series of lower bridges along the same set of tracks untouched.

The city has approved a plan to make extensive repairs to a bridge on North Avenue. The repairs would extend the life of the bridge for another few decades but leave the clearance at 19 feet, meaning it would be several decades before double stacked trains could run through the park.

Residents called for a more comprehensive plan. Every person that spoke at the meeting spoke against the city’s proposal.

“Would you do that to your house? Would you say ‘I’m going to look at the fireplace, but not at the roof’?” Northside resident Francis Barbush asked.

Five options concerning future changes to the West Ohio Street Bridge, which lies within Allegheny Commons Park, were presented to the public.

The options that garnered the most applause from the audience involved lowering the railroad and rehabilitating the bridge, or doing nothing and going back to the drawing board.

But Assistant Public Works Director Patrick Hassett said that they considered only two options — rehabilitating the bridge and raising it or replacing the bridge and raising it — to be “feasible” and “prudent” due to considerations of cost, safety and design standards.

This was met with scoffs and laughter from Northsiders who were not only concerned that the raised bridge might ruin the landscape of the park, but also that construction would cause many of the London plane trees near the tracks to die.

“The city has neglected to maintain this bridge and we have to suffer the consequences,” Barbush said.

“There needs to be a perspective that takes into account all the bridges that this railroad goes under,” said Northside historian John Canning. “The only solution that I can see is to lower the tracks.”

City consultants estimate that lowering the tracks would cost between $20 and $29 million and take longer to complete than the other options would. They have $5 million for the project, 80 percent of which is federal funding.

“This isn’t going to work for our neighborhoods,” said Councilwoman Darlene Harris. “We need to go back to the drawing board so that the clearances can be met and not have these negative impacts.”

If they opt to do nothing, however, Hassett said that the “funding would go away” and the bridge would continue to deteriorate.

“Will the bridge become available for this type of funding again?” he asked rhetorically.

Hassett encouraged those present at the meeting to fill out comment forms, which he and his team would collect and review. They plan to come to a decision this summer and begin construction in spring 2013.

Jeanette Lee is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Professional Writing and Investigative Journalism.