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Gainey plan for Pittsburgh bridges will meet overstretched city department

When a city councilman asked Kim Lucas, the new director of the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure [DOMI] what her department needs to be successful, she said the department has “a real core capacity issue.”

“We have three people who are responsible for over 800 sets of public steps, 150 city-owned bridges, over 400 retaining walls, and landslide and flood mitigation efforts,” Lucas said. .

This low staffing at DOMI could hamper Mayor Ed Gainey’s plans to overhaul the way Pittsburgh manages its many bridges. Bridge maintenance rose to the top of the new mayor’s to-do list after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in January and the public scrutiny that followed.

Gainey announced May 5 that the city will be soliciting bids for a comprehensive bridge management plan, which he says will mean the city “will have someone leading a team that will stand up every day and will reflect on the safety and integrity of our bridges”.

A view of the Milroy Street Bridge, which has a ‘Poor’ condition rating, linking Perry South to Northview Heights. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

He said he will task the new coordinator to provide a status report on all city-owned bridges by October.

The move comes as DOMI, which is responsible for bridges, roads, steps and more in the city, gets a new permanent manager in Lucas. At her confirmation hearing before the board in May, she was blunt in saying the department was understaffed, underfunded and even under-resourced. On top of that, an independent report in late 2021 warned that morale issues and overwork could hamper DOMI.

Short staff

Lucas clarified in an interview with PublicSource that there are more than three employees in the structures division, but there are three people “responsible for major capital projects and the department’s asset management work.”

Gainey spokeswoman Maria Montaño said in an email that department staffing and Lucas’ calls for greater capacity are part of the reason for the new bridge management program, which will give the city “a clear picture” of what it needs to do for each bridge. .

Gainey’s plan calls for a bridge management consultant to present the city with a comprehensive plan for inspection, maintenance and investment in the city’s 150 bridges. In his testimony to the board and his interview with PublicSource, Lucas indicated that the department could use more staff to carry out this plan once it is ready.

“You have to have staff to spend money,” she said. “We are very creative and our staff are making considerable efforts. We have an incredible, dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable staff. And we could do more with more.

DOMI is the city’s newest department, created in 2017. The 2022 budget includes funding for 102 full-time DOMI employees, although many are involved in traffic, paving and other tasks not specific to bridges.

Swindell Bridge, which has a ‘Poor’ condition rating, linking Perry South with Northview Heights. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

Lucas told the board that purchasing software for infrastructure management could alleviate some of the problems created by understaffing by helping the department be more strategic in its maintenance decisions.

“A $10,000 maintenance could prevent a $10 million project if you do it at the right time,” Lucas said. “The software exists, the human beings within the city budget do not exist. The city used to have bridge maintenance people, they had bridge inspectors decades ago…We don’t employ them directly today,” but instead rely on contractors.

Lucas said she and her staff will “absolutely convey our needs” to the mayor’s office during the upcoming 2023 budget process, but tempered her expectations with a nod to the city’s fiscal reality during the pandemic.

“We’re going to make sure that we’re not just going to get all of these needs on paper, but we’re going to prioritize them because we know it’s not possible to necessarily meet all of those overnight,” he said. she declared.

Morale and turnover

In late 2021, nonprofit foundations commissioned a comprehensive report from city departments to assess the health of the administration as it prepared to transition to a new mayor. The resulting 41-page report on DOMI warns of overworked staff.

“Morale is not good,” the report read. “The department has recently lost staff and there are more and more high caliber projects without enough staff to meet the demand. The root causes are burnout, a high workload, and a lack of competitive compensation. »

Mobility and Infrastructure Director Kim Lucas. (Photo courtesy of City of Pittsburgh)

The report also warns of impending retirements. “The factors exposed show that DOMI could show a huge transition over the next year.”

Public payroll records show that eight employees left the department in the second half of 2021, along with seven others in the first three months of 2022. Nine employees were hired during this nine-month period, bringing the total to 90. Of these, 31 had been employed for at least 10 years.

“We have a staff that is doing exceptionally well,” Lucas said. “The reality is that we have a lot of infrastructure.”

Montaño said of the moral concerns raised by the report, “I think this is true for just about every workplace,” adding that the new administration has met with employees to determine how “to provide the best possible support to our workforce.”

Gainey said of the concerns raised by the foundation’s report, “I don’t want to talk about what DOMI was” and that he didn’t want to “point fingers”.

To a follow-up question on the current status of the department, Gainey said, “I think we are getting back to the staff that they need … We are working on it, and we are doing it and we are doing everything necessary to keep everyone safe of these bridges.

Hold the purse strings

DOMI is responsible for repairing and replacing Pittsburgh’s bridges, but it does this in concert with the engineering inspectors it hires and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which approves all major engineering projects in the city. region that receive federal funding.

Virtually all major bridge projects involve federal dollars, so the commission is heavily involved in the maintenance of the Pittsburgh Bridge. But he generally relies on requests from DOMI to formulate his spending plan for the city.

Mayor Ed Gainey held a press conference on May 5 to announce a new plan for the city’s bridges. (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource)

The proposed bridge management team would identify maintenance, preservation and rehabilitation needs and “recommend timelines for each type of activity, with a view to investing city resources wisely,” according to the RFP. published by the city.

Lucas said the impending contract is not an indication that the bridge strategy has been neglected by the department, but that they aim to streamline it further.

“All of these things are tackled in different ways and by different people, but having someone who can dedicate themselves to the strategic planning of this one is not uncommon.”

Montaño said it remains to be seen if the bridge management program will end with the full report delivered in the fall or if a bridge-focused position will become permanent.

Councilman Corey O’Connor, who pushed for the creation of an infrastructure management commission after the collapse of Fern Hollow, said the new bridge management consultant could improve the city’s responsiveness to inspections that ‘it leads.

“Sometimes someone has to say, ‘Hey, the engineering report says this. This is the most conservative solution we have to save people’s lives,” O’Connor said. “That person has to have that ability to make that decision.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and Report for America staff member. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story has been verified by Matt Maielli.

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