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There are 739 city-owned stairways in Steel City and some are in rough shape. Can the City Accelerator help?
Efforts in Pittsburgh to preserve and upgrade the hundreds of iconic public stairways built decades ago on the city’s steep hillsides have received a new boost, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office announced Thursday.
The city is one of four municipalities selected nationwide to participate in the latest round of the so-called City Accelerator, an initiative that seeks to promote innovative practices in U.S. cities. Through the program Pittsburgh, in addition to San Francisco, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. will each receive about $100,000, along with technical support and other guidance, which is meant to help them find cutting-edge ways to finance infrastructure projects.
Pittsburgh’s work with the accelerator will focus on its 739 sets of city-owned steps, many of which were built in the 1940s and 1950s and are showing their age.
The accelerator itself is not meant to pay for construction or physical repairs. Instead it is designed to give Pittsburgh an opportunity to explore options for financing and carrying out future upgrades and maintenance on the stairways and other projects.
“Increasing our capacity by double or triple the rate of repair and replacement of our city’s steps,” Peduto said in a statement Thursday, “would allow us to cut down on our large maintenance backlog and incorporate new technologies to help preserve these assets longer.”
Alex Pazuchanics, a policy adviser in the mayor’s office, said he and his colleagues in Peduto’s administration see the accelerator as an opportunity to hear about creative ways other municipalities are financing infrastructure, including public-private partnerships. And they’d like to use it as a chance to take a “hard look” at how Pittsburgh prioritizes and expedites projects.
“We see this as a starting point for conversations about all of our other asset classes,” he said. “If we can come up with ways to rapidly replace or repair steps, I think it can serve as a good model for other types of capital projects moving forward.”
But he also added: “Steps are our first and primary interest.”
The sets of steps in Pittsburgh vary in length, steepness, and how they are constructed, with many made of concrete. Technically, 344 “streets” in the city are actually flights of stairs.
The longest stairway in town, according to data Pittsburgh has published online through the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, is a set known as the Ray Avenue Steps, which are 378-steps-long. When combined, the 45,454 steps that make up the city’s public stairways ascend 24,545 feet, about 4,500 feet shy, of the summit’s height on Mount Everest.
Pittsburgh is part of the third cohort of cities to participate in the program since 2014.
Elizabeth Reynoso, Living Cities’ assistant director of public sector innovation, explained that about $1.1 million is available to fund technical assistance for all of the cities participating in the program. As for the roughly $100,000 grant each place receives, she said that past cities have used it to pay for expenses like consultants.
Reynoso stressed that the value of the accelerator was not so much the funding it provided, but rather the connections city officials make with experts, and municipal staff in other places, along with additional opportunities that come up in the course of the 18-month program.
“It helps the team actually get out of the day-to-day and reflect on their processes,” she said.
So why do the steps matter so much in Pittsburgh?
“I think the steps really get to a larger conversation about multi-modality,” Pazuchanics said. “Not only are they a pedestrian asset but, in a place like Pittsburgh, with the topography that we have, they’re really an important connector to transit, to jobs, to community amenities.”
Brian Oswald is a physician assistant in Pittsburgh. He is also the president of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association. South Side Slopes has the most steps of any of the neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh, according to Oswald.
“We have 68 sets of steps,” he said.
In years gone by, he noted, steelworkers would commute to work via the neighborhood’s steps to a steel mill in the South Side Flats. “They're infrastructure of a bygone era,” he said.
But Oswald is fond of the steps, touting them as a useful and faster alternative than car travel in some situations. He said he uses the stairways in his neighborhood four to five times a week.
“It's a 10-minute walk down to go to the entertainment district and get dinner and get a couple beers,” he said. “It’s easier to go down the steps than it is the streets. They’re more direct.”
The neighborhood association, Oswald said, recently secured a $100,000 grant to rehabilitate steps in the South Side Slopes. But that amount is far short of the estimated $500,000 needed for just one stairway project. Oswald explained that the particular stairway is about 100-steps-long, and that columns supporting the steps may be structurally deficient.
“The only way to make that better is to tear them down and rebuild them,” he added. “If we can find a way to get to these sets of steps before they get to the point where a tear-down-rebuild is the only option, then we can save a significant amount of money.”
In the city’s capital budget for 2016, Pazuchanics said there is about $150,000 dedicated to step repair. He did not believe the city had a cost estimate for how much money it would take to refurbish all of the city-owned stairways.
Asked whether it makes sense to keep all of the stairways in place going forward, Pazuchanics said that was something that would have to be considered “step by step.”
“The city’s sort of constantly changing and evolving,” he said. “I think, ultimately, the City Accelerator program gives us the chance to expand the number of steps that we are able to preserve and maintain.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.