Pittsburgh Is Struggling to Maintain Its 45,454 Public Steps

The city budget isn’t enough to keep up with costly and logistically difficult repairs, so some stairways might come down

Photo: Matt Niemi

Back in the first decades of 1900s, when Pittsburgh was expanding as a coal and steel town, the hilly city's valleys began to fill up, and workers had to settle on the slopes. To access those new neighborhoods, the city built steps, out of wood, and later, concrete. Pittsburgh became unique among American cities, resembling more than any other American city a stair-lined town in Italy or Japan.

According to retired geophysicist Bob Regan, who has spent years documenting the city's famous stairways, Pittsburgh has exactly 45,454 public steps. But now the fast of Pittsburgh's historic staircases is uncertain, the Wall Street Journal reports.

For one, the Journal says, the city isn't even sure how many staircases it has. While Regan—who wrote a book about Pittsburgh's stairs—says there's 739, the city contends that there are just 675. In order to preserve something, you need to know it exists in the first place.

Budget constraints are also an issue. As the Journal reports, of the city's $52 million budget, just $200,000 is allotted for stair maintenance and repair. Yet repairing just a single staircase can cost upwards of $100,000. WSJ:

"You have to get equipment to the site, and you have to pump concrete up a hill," says Guy Costa, chief operations officer for Pittsburgh. Mr. Costa knows the steps are "great for the city and an attraction for the city," because they offer magnificent views of one of the hilliest cities in North America. But, he says, steps must be taken to reduce costs. "It's tough, do you buy firetrucks or repair steps?" he asks. 

Residents themselves are torn. Some say the stairs are iconic and also a boon to their exercise regime, while others cite drug deals and "orgies" that take place on some of the derelict staircases. Real estate agents also say they have to factor in a "step discount" of up to $50,000 for a property that requires a steep hike to access it, the Journal adds, and many buyers intentionally avoid properties with steps. 

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