The city of Pittsburgh will take over inspections and maintenance of a gate and sensor system that failed to keep people off an oft-flooded road during flash flooding, five years after four people were killed in flash floods there, Mayor Bill Peduto announced Monday.
“We’ll own it from here on out,” Peduto said, referring to the $450,000 system that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation installed along Washington Boulevard after the deadly August 19, 2011, flash floods. “We’ll maintain it and we’ll make sure the system works.”
According to Peduto, the city wasn’t clear before Sunday about whose responsibility it was to inspect and maintain the system, but he said the city will make sure it’s done from here on out.
Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said one car was submerged after the storm hit about 6:15 p.m. Sunday, but three people in the car got to safety. A 54-year-old woman who tried to drive through the water had to be rescued by crews after her van began to float away, Hissrich said.
Police officers quickly blocked off the road until 3 to 4 feet of water receded.
Peduto told reporters Monday that the gates malfunctioned. The city is paying $8,000 to Bronder Technical Systems, the subcontractor that installed the system, to report on the cause of the failure within seven to 10 days.
The system uses two water sensors on the low-lying road to trigger three gates – similar to those found at railroad crossings – to keep motorists off the stretch of the boulevard that has flooded dozens of times over the years. The sensor also triggers several lighted traffic signals, warning of potential flooding.
Public Works Director Mike Gable said the sensors “talk” to the gates and signals using cellphone-like technology so the failure may be something as simple as old batteries or tree limbs that blocked those communications.
Dan Cessna, the executive who heads PennDOT District 11, said the gate “system was turned over to the city in 2013. Since that point, the ownership and maintenance would be the responsibility of the city.” Peduto didn’t take office until 2014, and his subordinates suggested Monday that questions about who was to maintain the system might have resulted from the change of administrations, which Cessna also mentioned.
No matter who’s responsible, the gate failure is “really distressing,” attorney Alan Perer said.
His firm sued the city, PennDOT and other agencies over the August 2011 deaths.
“This is just not careful governance, they were just lucky” nobody died on Sunday, Perer said. “I wonder how long that’s been since it didn’t work?”
A 72-year-old woman was swept into an open manhole and drowned, while a woman and two young daughters died when their minivan was submerged in a 9-foot wall of water five years ago.
The city paid $375,000 total to both families to settle its legal claims in the deaths. PennDOT paid $1 million, while the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan) and the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority paid $500,000 each to the families – in all instances, the maximum allowable amounts for government agencies under state law.
Peduto said the city is continuing to work with Alcosan on plans to reduce storm water drainage into sewers along Washington Boulevard under a federal consent decree meant to limit how much regular sewage overflows into the Allegheny River during heavy rains.
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