Whether it will win over its many critics is anyone's guess, but the Port Authority's $523.4 million light-rail extension to the North Shore is certain to be a civic conversation piece for years to come.
Starting March 25, for the first time in Pittsburgh's storied history, people will travel under a river, in twin tunnels bored about 20 feet below the bottom of the Allegheny. The 1.2-mile North Shore Connector will link a new Gateway Center Station at Liberty Avenue and Stanwix Street, Downtown, with an underground station near PNC Park and an elevated station near Heinz Field.
Authority officials provided a sneak preview on Monday, taking reporters and photographers on a round trip of the new leg. It started at Gateway, an underground station that is enclosed in glass to let natural light stream to the platform.
"It's a tunnel station that allows sunlight to come through. That's a unique characteristic," said Winston Simmonds, the authority's rail operations/engineering officer.
The huge circular concrete pillars that support the station rise at angles from the waiting platform, a design feature likely to bewilder and fascinate visitors (but were necessary to fit escalators into the available space). Stainless steel sign posts are also angled rather than straight. The Romare Bearden mural that was removed from the old station was restored tile by tile and reinstalled (keeping the mistake of one tile that is upside down).
From Gateway, trains snake their way under the river in tunnels that descend to duck the river and curve to avoid conflicts with structures above ground, including the baseball stadium. It takes less than two minutes to reach the new North Side Station, both cavernous and visually appealing with metal-skinned walls and a high, concave ceiling. It is beneath the West General Robinson Street parking garage and catercorner to where Honus Wagner's statue resides outside the baseball park.
From there, the track rises quickly from below ground as it approaches Heinz Field. The new end of the line is the elevated Allegheny Station, just a short pass from the football stadium's northwest corner. From the platform one can also see the Carnegie Science Center, SportsWorks, Rivers Casino, Community College of Allegheny County and historic Allegheny West.
The new section, under construction for 51/2 years, will bring fundamental changes for riders.
All service on the Blue and Red lines will continue from Downtown to the North Shore, with cars changing directions at Allegheny Station (like they currently do at Wood Street). The authority has launched an ad campaign called "T-Plus" to emphasize that it won't be necessary to change cars to ride the new section.
Service will operate every four minutes during weekday peak hours, to encourage commuters to park in North Shore garages and lots and ride to Downtown.
Rides will be free for at least three years, underwritten by the Steelers, the casino, Alco Parking and the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority. The expanded free-fare zone from Allegheny Station to First Avenue Station includes six stops.
The new stations all have center platforms, allowing riders to board trains in either direction.
The scheduled trip time from Wood Street to Allegheny is nine minutes, with a three-minute layover to change directions. That means that riders who want to "cheat" during the evening rush by boarding an inbound train at Wood Street to get a seat will add at least 21 minutes to their travel time.
After stadium events, authority police and personnel will control access to the North Shore stations to prevent overcrowding on the platforms. That may mean some lines forming on the sidewalks outside the stations. The system can move a maximum of about 6,800 people per hour with two-car trains operating every three minutes after a major event, Mr. Simmonds said.
Asked what he will say when he is inevitably asked why the authority didn't build bigger platforms, he replied, "You don't build the church for Easter Sunday."
The first car to carry passengers under the Allegheny will be a Red Line vehicle scheduled to depart from the inbound Wood Street platform at 5:46 a.m. on March 25.
The name of the line is being changed slightly to Red Line-Castle Shannon via Beechview and during weekday peak periods service will operate every 12 minutes instead of every 10.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published March 13, 2012 4:00 AM