The Crumbling Stairs Of Pittsburgh
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When cities debate how to spend scarce infrastructure dollars, they may ask if there's a better way to speed commutes with new buses, light rail or subway lines. Commuters in Pittsburgh, though, are grappling with a much lower tech infrastructure problem, as Margaret J. Krauss of member station WESA reports.
MARGARET J. KRAUSS, BYLINE: Pittsburgh is many kinds of city. It's a sports city. It's a robotics city. It's a ketchup city. But at its most essential, Pittsburgh is a city of hills - steep hills. I'm walking up one of them thanks to a towering set of steps on the city's south side. It's one of more than 800 public staircases all throughout the city. And this one's built right into the rock, hugged on either side by these similarly gravity-defying houses also set into the rock.
Hi. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good. How are you?
KRAUSS: It's about 5:45 on a weekday. And the steps are active - people climbing on from work, doing errands, walking their dogs just like they have for more than a century.
When most of Pittsburgh's steps were built, the city was hitting its industrial stride. Glass and steel factories were cranking on the prime real estate below me, the flatlands surrounding the city's three rivers. And workers lived up here on the hillsides because land was cheap and the fastest way to get to work was a staircase. The factories are mostly gone now, but a lot of people still get up and down the hills on foot.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)
KRAUSS: At another set of steps, adjacent to a grocery store parking lot and across from the cart return, is where I meet Jake Milofsky. He used to commute regularly on these steps.
JAKE MILOFSKY: There's a lot of knotweed. And there's a bar welded across the entrance and a sign that says steps closed. So you kind of have to do a little bit of navigation to get up there.
KRAUSS: We take them anyway. Jake tells me to watch out for exposed steel rebar and missing treads. That's how he fell through the stairs last winter and cracked a rib.
MILOFSKY: Could have been a lot worse so - the main lesson mainly enforced by my wife is that I'm not allowed to go on the stairs anymore until they're fixed.
KRAUSS: Rehabbing one set of steps can cost nearly half a million dollars. So many steps need work it's hard to know where to start, says city transportation planner Kristin Saunders.
KRISTIN SAUNDERS: You know, if you gave us a ton of money to spend on one set of steps today, we would have a hard time telling you which set of steps that money should go to. And so this process is really to get us to a prioritized list of steps.
KRAUSS: Pittsburgh officials kicked off a step census this summer. Exactly how many are there? What are they made of? How are they built? What condition are they in? They asked residents to share how they use their steps and why they matter?
ANGELITA WYNN: You ready? OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
KRAUSS: It's a little after 4 o'clock in the morning. And school bus driver Angelita Wynn is starting her daily routine, running the city steps in front of her house before her 5-year-old wakes up. She says the steps are good for her health. But what they really provide is choice, flexibility.
WYNN: You have to be able to get where you need to go. When you don't have access to your own transportation or you don't have the funds to get to the gym in my case, these steps - they are what some people just don't have.
KRAUSS: In the coming months, the city will finish building its list of most used and most dilapidated steps. Then the hunt for funding begins. But city officials are optimistic. So many people care about the steps. They'll find a way to keep them. For NPR News, in Pittsburgh, I'm Margaret J. Krauss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.