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Completing the Loop: The West End Bridge Gap

By November 23, 2000November 24th, 2020Uncategorized

Riverlife’s Completing the Loop initiative is a movement to link and enhance Pittsburgh’s riverfronts between the West End, Hot Metal, and 31st Street Bridges… and beyond. As part of this work, we’re looking at some of the most challenging gaps in the city’s riverfront network.

The West End Bridge spans the Ohio River just west of Pittsburgh’s famous Point, where the Ohio is created by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The bridge’s footprint on the northern and southern banks of the Ohio plays a major role in the greater context of Pittsburgh’s overall riverfront connectivity.

Simply put, it’s not easy to get from one side of the river to the other if you’re not in a car. And even then it’s still a bit of a challenge, as anyone who has braved the West End Circle can tell you.

Image from Riverlife’s Completing the Loop StoryMap

Since 1999, the West End Bridge has served as a natural boundary marker for Riverlife’s work to create a 15-mile continuous loop of riverfront public open space and access centered around Downtown. Creating bike/ped access across the bridge not only would solve a major connectivity challenge for riverfront users, but also offer a promising opportunity to improve regional air quality. The more people who can cross the bridge by foot or bike, the fewer cars on the bridge and thus less air pollution.

In Riverlife’s Completing the Loop analysis, we call the riverfront areas leading up to the bridge on both sides of the Ohio River the “West End Bridge Gap.” Pedestrian and cycling access are limited here, with no ADA-compliant access existing to cross the bridge.

View of the West End Bridge from the southern bank of the Ohio River. Image by evolveEA for Riverlife.

In fact, this district is an impediment to connectivity within Pittsburgh and a major gap in a number of regional and national trail networks. Overcoming this gap is critical to connect Pittsburgh’s Downtown loop of riverfront access and expand it to communities west of Pittsburgh such as the West End neighborhood and McKees Rocks.

Images from Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and Riverlife

The West End Gap is split into three segments, West End Bridge, West Carson Street, and Gateway View Plaza, all of which have been classified as RED segments by Riverlife’s Completing the Loop analysis, with connectivity and place being of highest concern (see the Completing the Loop scorecards here; use the top menu to jump to the West End segments.)

Thriving riverfronts connect people to the river, to destinations, and to neighborhoods, and create a sense of place with amenities, lighting, and quality design.

With the West End Gap, the Connectivity and Place categories have the lowest scores out of all the metrics, both totaling a final score of about 10%. In terms of connectivity, it’s apparent that there is a lot of work to be done here, as two out of the three segments received a score of 0%.

West Carson Street does not have a trail along the river, so people must use the sidewalk next to the street; due to the cross slope and condition of the surface of the sidewalk, this does not meet ADA standards. Additionally, the only way to access the West End Bridge or the West End neighborhood is to walk up a tall flight of stairs, making it inaccessible and poorly connected.

Left: Poor pedestrian access along West Carson Street approaching the bridge. Right: No ADA-compliant access up to the bridge currently exists. Photos by evolveEA for Riverlife.

As for Place, the West End Bridge gap doesn’t score much higher than Connectivity. This district is simply not enjoyable to experience, with highway-scale cobra headlights and buildings that do not activate the riverfront.

As we move on to the Maintenance metric, we see little improvement with a score of 11%. This district appears to have little maintenance upkeep; there are trash and weeds littered all along the riverbank and streets, and cracked sidewalks, roads, and pathways.

The final metric, Ecology, illustrates a glimmer of hope within this district, as it has the highest average score in the West End Bridge district of 24%. According to the Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh Division, the condition of the riverbank is fair to favorable throughout the district. However, we see the overall score dip so low due to the West Carson Street district having so few trees along the riverbank (only 4% canopy cover) and invasive species dominating the overall flora.

Looking from the West End Bridge down to the southern bank of the Ohio adjacent to West Carson Street. Photo by evolveEA for Riverlife

Despite many challenges, the West End Bridge has many hidden opportunities for increased riverfront and neighborhood access in the West Carson Street District. The Saw Mill Run outfall is in the West Carson District, which presents an opportunity to connect to a future Saw Mill Run greenway. Additionally this district offers spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh where you are able to see them. Yet, the lack of ADA access and barriers along the riverfront make it challenging to create continuous, accessible riverfront access for all.

With the West End Bridge on the Pennsylvania Transportation Improvement Plan for major rehabilitation work in the next decade, the time is right to advance plans for improved access to and across the bridge for the non-motorized users of Pittsburgh’s riverfront system. Riverlife has been thinking about this for a long time; we even held a design competition for a West End pedestrian bridge several years ago, and our hopes remain high that safe, enjoyable bike/ped solutions can be funded and implemented both on the bridge and on the riverbanks leading up to it.

Image by Chris Persic, used with permission.

In fact, Riverlife is working right now with many stakeholders–property owners, regional agencies and authorities, and engineers–to solve these puzzles and fill this major gap in Pittsburgh’s loop of riverfront parks and trails. As more people and real estate development come to these areas, there’s renewed interest in looking at solutions to connect folks across the river and further activate the bridge.

In doing so, we can create a signature riverfront experience for Pittsburghers and our visitors, while working to reduce auto pollution and congestion, and restore ecology to the banks of the Ohio. Stay tuned, and subscribe to our e-newsletter to follow updates on this project!

Top image by Alan Whittington for Riverlife.

Pittsburgh’s riverfronts have transformed over the past two decades with the generous support of people like you. We are grateful for your continued help – with your donation to Riverlife today, together we can complete the Loop!