CMU students

From left are Luna Hu, Charlotte Rao, Rachel Bukowitz and Erick Shiring

Based on the first survey ever conducted on the subject, Mt. Lebanon residents consider brick streets to be a major community asset.

A team of Carnegie Mellon University students found that 96% of the nearly 1,600 respondents are of the opinion that brick streets contribute to the character and historic charm of the community, and 82% would be willing to pay to support their preservation.

The four students in CMU’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy spent more than 800 combined hours during the fall semester working on a comprehensive analysis of local brick streets, examining aspects including financial viability and public opinion.

Faculty adviser for the project is Anna Siefken, a Mt. Lebanon resident who served on the municipal Historic Preservation Board for six years.

“There was a deconstruction of a street in 2014 and then a separate street in 2019, which really brought this to the forefront,” she told Mt. Lebanon commissioners at their Dec. 8 discussion session. “It became apparent that we needed to really look at the data on how brick streets can contribute to a municipality.”

Undertaking the effort as part of their graduate studies were Luna Hu, Rachel Bukowitz, Charlotte Rao and Erick Shiring, who shared their findings with the commission through a virtual presentation, “The Case for Historic Street Preservation.”

“We believe historic brick streets can be protected in a financially viable way, and this project aims to prove this and to provide guidance for Mt. Lebanon’s decision-making process on brick street preservation policy,” Hu, the project leader, told commissioners.

Providing further details about the survey, which took place in October, Bukowitz said the number of respondents represents “a statistically significant sample size given Mt. Lebanon’s population over the age of 18.”

The large percentage of people who claimed willingness to support preservation efforts financially prompted a suggestion from the students.

“Given this residential support, one funding possibility that the municipality could consider is to develop a special projects fund that is set aside specifically for brick streets,” Bukowitz said.

Replying to other questions, 84% of respondents who live on brick streets think the streets enhance property values and 60% agreed or strongly agreed brick streets calm traffic and increase safety.

The survey also included space for written comments, and 680 respondents took the opportunity to elaborate on their opinions.

“This tells us that this is a topic that residents are passionate about, and that they want to make their voices heard,” Bukowitz said.

Among Mt. Lebanon’s more than 300 streets, 76 are brick and the rest are a mix of asphalt and concrete, with many of the former dating back more than a century.

While acknowledging that maintenance of brick streets has higher per-unit costs, the students determined “they have longer life expectancy and need less maintenance” compared with asphalt, Hu said.

Incorporating formulas for present value and price escalation, the students ran lifecycle cost analyses for the next 50 and 100 years.

“Throughout the 100-year period, the asphalt street needs to be resurfaced every 20 years, coupled with rejuvenation and crack repair,” Hu reported, while onetime brick restoration is complemented by some degree of reconstruction each two decades.

Within that framework, preserving brick streets instead of replacing them with the alternative would result in a cost difference of $208,462 for half a century and $284,721 for the full century, according to the students’ presentation.

Also to help reduce costs, Rao discussed potential municipal decision-making strategies, such as those pertaining to receiving bids for street maintenance.

“Currently, in the bidding process for curb-to-curb reconstruction, streets including brick, concrete and asphalt in worst condition are put together in a bid package, which can raise the brick streets’ repair cost because contractors with the most competitive bids are not brick contractors,” she said. “We recommend the municipality establish a brick vendor base supply and combine brick streets bids across municipalities to lower the price of the contractual work.”

Shiring wrapped up the students’ report with an emphasis on its context.

“The financial, environmental and public opinion of brick streets from this presentation are based on the present day,” he said. “We don’t know how much these streets will be worth in another hundred years. Likely, in that time they will be an even stronger connection to a simpler time with greater attention to aesthetics, and less to automation and perceived efficiency.”

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Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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