The Riverton Bridge

allegheny | West Mifflin, PA Mile 133

The Nuts & Bolts: Riverton Bridge

  • 1,570 feet long, largest span 340 feet long, Parker through truss
  • Original Construction: completed in 1890
  • Refurbished for GAP Use: September 2008
  • Total Cost: $2,569,269.38 (bridge and ramp combined cost)
  • Engineers: L.R. Kimball & Associates (Kevin O’Connor & Brian Deitrich)
  • Contractor: American Bridge (Andrew Graff), Frontier Steel Corporation (Richard Keib)
  • Project Manager: Jack Paulik

“I have 60 days to put a bike-friendly trail before the Pittsburgh 250 ride.
And, we did it in 60 days!”
-Jack Paulik, June 26, 2019[1]

 

During the early to mid-1900s, the Mon Valley of Pittsburgh was a powerhouse of industrial innovation. Rail lines weaved down the Monongahela River, transporting molten iron and forged steel. Freight cars hauling raw materials for smelting once crossed the Mon River over a wrought-iron bridge. Today, that same bridge has been repurposed for a new type of traffic: trail users. A memory of an age of industry and production, the Riverton Bridge carried the Union Railroad’s tracks to the steel mills that dotted the riverbank. This bridge was the gateway from McKeesport to Duquesne, leading the railroads, and now the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), closer to Pittsburgh.

Riverton Bridge was constructed in 1890 to serve as a connection bridge between the National Tube Works at McKeesport and the blast furnace of Duquesne Works.[2] Both properties were later redeveloped by the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania (RIDC) into business parks.[3] The Parker truss style bridge extends over the Monongahela River a total of 1,570 feet with the largest span having a length of 340 feet.[4] The Riverton Bridge stayed in operation until 2008 when it was donated and refitted for trail use.

In 1992, trail construction on the acquired Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad (P&LE) had begun between McKeesport and Connellsville, and in 1995 the broader plan envisioned by many, of forming a trail system leading from Pittsburgh to Cumberland began to take shape.[5] Seeking a connection from McKeesport into the surrounding communities of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) began negotiations between U.S. Steel, the Union Railroad (URR), and county and city officials in 2003 after completion of the Big Savage Tunnel project. Trailbuilders like ATA Project Coordinator Jack Paulik, ATA President Linda M. Boxx, and Hannah Hardy would finally see progress on the project in 2006.

The challenge of raising awareness and interest in the trail project among county officials and Pittsburgh-area CEOs was substantial.  But, in 2006, the GAP was chosen by the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development to be a “signature project” to commemorate Pittsburgh’s 250th Anniversary in 2008, which set a goal of completing the GAP by September of 2008.  Boxx recalls,

“[T]he Allegheny Conference – unbeknownst to me – was looking for signature projects to help celebrate Pittsburgh 250. And, I got a call – and I believe it was from Laura Fisher – that basically said, ‘Oh, we’ve chosen finishing the Great Allegheny Passage as one of our signature projects to help celebrate Pittsburgh – the Pittsburgh 250.’ And, I was stunned, ‘Holy cow!’”[6]

The support given to the trailbuilders by members of the Allegheny Conference’s Pittsburgh 250 committee helped to boost not only the Riverton Bridge project, but the development of the 30 consecutive plots of land and aerial easements keeping the trail from expanding to Homestead (the Waterfront shopping complex).[7] The extra support from the Pittsburgh 250th was “a godsend.”[8]

To give these local leaders a better sense of the project, the Boxx gathered together members of the Allegheny Conference for a bus trip to witness the ATA’s plan for building the trail into Pittsburgh. After reaching Grant Avenue in Duquesne, the trail had to completely bypass the route along the Monongahela River to avoid Union Railroad/Norfolk and Southern Railroad property since no right-of-way easements were established.[9] This meant the only option was to have the bike trail run on a 4-foot-wide sidewalk, punctuated with utility poles, along State Route 837, a road notorious for heavy vehicular traffic and steep grades that was unsafe for bicycles. When U.S. Steel CEO John Surma witnessed this during the trail visit, he offered to start a dialogue with Norfolk Southern Railway to help provide a safer route for trail users, which made the coke-gas pipeline section feasible. Surma’s support also led the Union Railroad to work with the ATA on identifying safe trail alignments through McKeesport and Duquesne.[10]

By building this rapport with local corporations and county officials, Boxx and Paulik were able to negotiate, slowly, the land needed to build the trail. An early success was a 12-foot wide easement from the RIDC to have the GAP run alongside the Union Railroad tracks in McKeesport to the Riverton Bridge (with the hope that some miracle would happen regarding the bridge). The railroad liability guidelines would further complicate this route, however.

The RIDC had granted the RTC a 12-foot wide easement at the edge of their property, 15 feet from URR’s tracks. After preliminary grading was done, the URR quickly objected: “We want your trail 23 feet from our track!”11  But RIDC balked at granting a wider easement to satisfy the railroad’s safety requirements. Paulik knew he was between a rock and a hard place: he needed both RIDC’s and URR’s continued goodwill and cooperation as he worked his way down the valley. “We have no power of eminent domain or anything to help us, other than we’re nice people…” Paulik recalled. Boxx and Paulik went back to the negotiating table and were finally successful in getting the extra 8 feet of width needed.12

The trail work helped RIDC in the long run as much more property became available for redevelopment after the Riverton Bridge project was completed

The bridge itself still remained property of the Union Railroad until 2008, when U.S. Steel Vice President Tom Sterling called Boxx with an offer they could not refuse. Boxx recalls the phone call with Sterling when he offered to give the bridge over to the GAP:[11]

“I got a call – I remember, it was a Monday morning and I’m driving around – and you know what cell service is like in Western Pennsylvania hills. But, I see that the call is from Tom Sterling who was the executive vice president at U.S. Steel and he was John Surma’s go-to point man for this whole thing. And, he said, ‘Linda. We’re going to give you the Riverton Bridge.’ And, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I wonder what he really said.’ And, he said, ‘Linda, did you hear me? We’re going to give you the Riverton Bridge.’ So, I was just dumbfounded. I had no idea what kind of response I babbled to him because I was, literally, in shock…” [12]

In return, U.S. Steel would no longer have to pay to maintain a bridge that they did not absolutely need.[13] Given that they were getting a bridge for free, the trailbuilders wanted to move forward with the deal. As it turned out, however, U. S. Steel would only deed the bridge over to Allegheny County, the transfer of the bridge would not be easy.

County officials embraced, with some conditions, the notion of having a structure to cross the Monongahela River. An inspection of the bridge had recently been completed by the railroad, but the county requested a new inspection–which would have cost $300,000.[14] Initially, there appeared to be an issue with damage to one of the piers that supported the bridge. Closer inspection revealed that the pier had solid structural integrity, as the stonemasons who repaired the pier were able to re-level the bridge as the pier was constructed.[15] Adding further peace of mind, American Bridge CEO Bob Luffy sent out a survey team to verify the bridge was level, and his stamp of approval led the Allegheny County Bridge Department to accept the donation,[16] but just in time to meet the October 2008 deadline for the celebratory bike ride.

To acquire funding for the construction project, Jack Paulik considered using $2 million in PennDOT money. This funding was conditional upon PennDOT’s own evaluation of the bridge’s structure, along with repainting the Riverton Bridge (costing $3 million) to prevent future rusting. PennDOT funding for this project would have driven the total cost well in excess of $6 million and several years to complete. Paulik re-evaluated and held the PennDOT funds for  another trail project, (which turned out to be the wall at Keystone Iron & Metals.)[17] Instead, private funding was raised through donations from the Colcom Foundation and state funding to meet the cost of $2 million to refurbish the bridge.[18] Bureaucracy was now the only remaining obstacle for the project. Allegheny County moved slowly to accept the deed for the bridge–so slowly that Union Railroad threatened to take back the donation. That threat finally prompted the county to move, and once the ownership issue was resolved, it became a race to get the bridge refitted for the trail.

When final approval for construction arrived, the ATA and their hired contractors only had 60 days to complete the project in time for the Pittsburgh 250 celebrations. Thankfully Paulik had already established construction bids and contracts to make the process go faster and the ramp construction was well underway. In all, Paulik’s contractors refurbished the whole bridge with ramps for $2 million, which covered the McKeesport shoreline ramp and bridge redecking. The McKeesport-side ramp leading up to the bridge was designed and built under contract with both P.J. Trumbull. Frontier Construction was the contractor to demolish the sweeping railroad ramps leading up to the bridge. Steel prices were at an all-time high and generated $80,000 for the demolition and clean-up. American Bridge installed the decking, which was made from recycled material.[19]

Facing a very tight schedule for rehabilitation, the Riverton Bridge was completed just in time for Pittsburgh’s 250th Anniversary, including a dedication ceremony held on September 25th, 2008.[20] The PNC Pittsburgh 250th Legacy Ride from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh was held on October 3-4, 2008 to commemorate the region’s anniversary.[21] The 24-hour relay consisted of 85 cyclists in 18 teams of 6-8 riders each, excited cyclists in tow as the head relay team reached Point State Park. If not for the efforts of the Paulik and Boxx, various Allegheny County officials, and the generosity of John Surma, U.S. Steel, the Union Railroad/Transtar, Bob Luffy and American Bridge, and other members of the Allegheny Conference, the GAP may have had to rely on the initial plan to cantilever a path alongside an existing bridge or worse: navigate beside State Route 837. But through negotiation and action under pressure, the GAP was able to breathe new life into the bones of Pittsburgh’s industrial past. The Riverton Bridge once provided a link for steel-forging industries of the Monongahela River to transport goods locally. Now, the bridge transports people from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh and provides a vital link into the communities of Allegheny County.

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Author: Reed Hertzler