PITTSBURGH – Inexperienced boaters face hidden dangers on the Allegheny River that could result in severe injury or death if they don’t pay attention.
That is why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District installed new warning signs on the Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh.
“Our focus on public safety is a top priority,” said David Conrad, the resident engineer for the district’s Neville Island Construction Office in charge of the project. “We want anyone who recreates on the river to go home safely.”
The new signs are bright red, seven feet high, and 14 feet wide. The district attached a sign to each of the bridge’s five piers. They are visible from up to half a mile away during daytime and reflective at night.
“You can start seeing them once you pass the Aspinwall Marina,” Conrad said, which is the closest marina upriver from the bridge.
The bridge is just upstream from Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2, the busiest lock used by most recreational boaters on the Allegheny. The facility uses a fixed-crest dam to keep a navigation pool deep enough for river traffic. The dam is underwater and nearly invisible from upstream.
“You really can’t see these dams from upriver until you’re right on it, and by then, it’s too late,” Conrad said.
The fixed crest dam – sometimes known as a low-head dam – creates an infinity pool visual effect, making it dangerous for boaters who don’t know it is there. Riding a boat of any size, especially kayaks and canoes, can result in boaters drowning in the dam’s furious backwash. The force of the water at the dam is so strong that a person can drown even if they are wearing a life jacket.
“It’s imperative for us to alert people who may not be as familiar with the river,” Conrad said.
All eight dams on the Allegheny River are fixed-crest dams from downtown Pittsburgh to Templeton, Pennsylvania. Each location has warning signs installed on the river to guide boaters toward the lock to navigate through safely.
However, adding more signs to the Lock 2 area was critically important because the lock is the most heavily used by recreational boaters on the Allegheny River. The facility sees hundreds of boats come through on summer holidays. Boaters enjoy visiting the Point of Pittsburgh, about nine miles downriver from the lock, especially during Pirates and early season Steelers games before the fall.
“I grew up in Pittsburgh. For us, to work on a contract project to keep the public safe is rewarding,” said Jim Carr, the quality control and project manager for Marion Hill Associates overseeing the contract.
In 2021, the Pittsburgh District installed safety buoys at Lock 2, which go in the water at the beginning of each recreational season but must come out before the winter. Therefore, the district wanted to invest in additional safety measures by adding more year-round signs.
The contractors used a specialty sonar to scan the concrete piers to avoid hitting any rebar when drilling holes.
“If you drill and hit something, you would have to patch the hole before moving to a different location. The sonar took a lot of the guesswork out. It saved us a lot of time to complete the project efficiently,” Carr said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is responsible for the Highland Park Bridge’s structure. Engineers and planners from the Pittsburgh District and PennDOT worked together to gain permission to install signs on the bridge.
“We had a lot of coordination with PennDOT. It was a great coloration between us and them to make this happen. It speaks to their willingness to make safety a top priority as well,” Conrad said.
The Pittsburgh District began project designs several years ago and awarded the contract in August 2022. Due to the water levels on the Allegheny River dropping recently, the contractors had to adjust from using their usual working barge to a much smaller one with lighter cranes. They adapted to the challenges to minimize delays. They began the work in May and completed the project in mid-June, so boaters could enjoy the river safely.
“I’m proud of working for the Army Corps, especially when I get a chance to work on projects that serve the public. The focus of this project is to make the public as safe as possible when they’re out using our river system,” Conrad said.