Wabash tunnel vision: a federal flub

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Below is the full text of the Aug. 12 letter from Port Authority acting CEO Ellen McLean to the Federal Transit Administration seeking permission to relax the HOV requirements at the Wabash Tunnel during the West Carson Street closure.

What should have happened: That day, or the next, the FTA should have responded by saying OK, you know what’s best for traffic and for your tunnel. Instead, the agency dawdled, requested more information, then dawdled some more, claiming it needed more information. What it eventually got was not significantly different or more expansive than what Ms. McLean provided in the Aug. 12 letter. What changed is that members of Congress (Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Mike Doyle) and a newspaper started barking about the long process. Then, and only then, the FTA finally coughed up an answer.

What happened here was that a bureaucracy was more concerned about minding its turf and protecting its prerogatives than serving the public that pays its salaries. Whether the open Wabash will reduce congestion in the work zone remains to be seen, but if it does, motorists can thank their federal government for putting them through nearly three months of needless delays and inconvenience.

Our story about the Wabash waiver for today’s print edition is here.

Ms. Brigid Hynes-Cherin
Region III Administrator
Federal Transit Administration
Re: Wabash Tunnel Request (Federal Project No.  PA-03-0227)
Dear Brigid:
Per our telephone discussion late Friday, I am asking, at the request of  PennDOT, for FTA’s authorization to temporarily lift the HOV 2+ restriction on the Wabash Tunnel.
Primarily utilizing federal funds, Port Authority rehabilitated and reopened the Wabash Tunnel (which was previously an old railroad tunnel) in December of 2004.  The Tunnel’s primary purpose is to provide buses and high occupancy vehicle commuter traffic access from Route 51 to the South Side and Downtown Pittsburgh.  Currently, the Tunnel is open to buses and HOV 2+ traffic during morning peak (6 to 10 a.m.) and afternoon peak (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) hours.  The Tunnel is open to all traffic during non-peak times, and it is closed entirely overnight from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Recently, PennDOT closed the outbound lanes of West Carson Street from the West End Bridge to McKees Rocks as part of a large PennDOT construction project that is expected to last two years (through late 2015).  This closure is causing substantial congestion and delays for motorists traveling to and from Route 51, Mt. Washington, Downtown and the Southside. Port Authority began receiving requests from various political leaders and local organizations to lift the HOV 2+ restriction in the Tunnel to try and ease this congestion.  This past Friday, PennDOT formally requested that Port Authority lift the restriction while its project is being completed.
While we frankly feel that PennDOT should have included this request as part of its planning for the roadwork, there is no denying that the West Carson Street closure is causing significant traffic delays and detours for motorists and that lifting the Tunnel HOV 2+ restriction during peak hours would likely resolve some of these issues.
Port Authority Police, Safety Operations, and Legal personnel have evaluated the request, and we believe that the Tunnel can safely be opened to all traffic during peak hours (assuming motorists follow posted speed limits and other signage).  From the standpoint of Port Authority’s bus operations/capital dollars, we do not believe that bus operations or bus miles travelled will be adversely affected as few buses utilize the Tunnel on a regular basis and the buses that do already share it with HOV vehicles during peak hours and all private vehicles during non-peak hours.  Of course, if lifting the restriction would prove to adversely affect bus operations or cause any other issues for Port Authority from an operational, capital, legal or safety perspective, Port Authority would certainly revisit the lifting of the restriction.
With that being said and because Wabash was funded primarily with federal dollars, Port Authority is requesting FTA’s concurrence to proceed with modifying the operating hours to lift the HOV 2+ peak hours restriction until PennDOT’s West Carson Street work is completed.     
I look forward to FTA’s review and response to this request in the near future.  Of course, please contact me if you have any remaining questions or require any additional information to render a decision.   I thank you for your attention on this matter.



workzoneThe Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge will reopen next Thursday evening after a two-season, $16.6 million rehabilitation project. PennDOT had announced a delay last month, but construction workers stepped it up to get the bridge open two days ahead of the advertised schedule.

The Squirrel Hill Tunnels will be open this weekend. Overnight lane closures will be in effect from 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday on the inbound side and 10 p.m. on the outbound side, with all restrictions lifted by 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The Duquesne Incline will close from about 8 a.m. to about 4 p.m. Friday for a state inspection. Shuttle buses will carry riders to the Monongahela Incline. One shuttle will operate between the upper stations of the inclines, the other between the lower stations.

The right lane on inbound Route 28 will be closed from the 40th Street Bridge to East Ohio Street from 8 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday during replacement of a gutter.

Traffic will be stopped on the Parkway East for up to 15 minutes at a time in both directions from midnight Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday between Squirrel Hill and Edgewood-Swissvale during placement of an overhead sign.

Thompson Run Road in Monroeville will reopen this afternoon. The road has been closed by a landslide between Lower Rodi Road and Northern Pike since late July. It was expected to reopen at 1 p.m.

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