PennDOT defends Squirrel Hill Tunnel closings

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When the Squirrel Hill Tunnel closes for an entire weekend, the main roads in Pittsburgh's East End and some of its eastern suburbs slow to a crawl due to the traffic on the detour routes.

As a result of those backups, some Pittsburghers avoid the area at all costs, and that has one small-business owner grumbling.

Nina Wolf, one of the owners of Animal Nature, a Regent Square store that specializes in natural pet products and animal feed, said her store loses 50 to 60 percent of its weekly sales when the tunnel closes for the weekend.

"The people who do make it in are very cranky, of course," she said, adding that she and other small-business owners in the Regent Square area have wondered why the work can't be done overnight.

While the closures are a burden to businesses and likely to irritate everyone who has to travel in the area, they are necessary, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Cowan said.

Crews removed 100 feet of concrete slab in each tunnel and then poured new concrete, which needs a weekend to cure, he said. During the work on the ceilings, "you just can't have traffic going through the tunnel."

Crews also are working overnight Monday through Friday to get the three-year renovation completed on time, but those tasks "are just not as involved" as the weekend work, Mr. Cowan said.

The next closure is tentatively scheduled for the weekend of July 26. The $49.5 million rehabilitation is scheduled to be completed next summer. PennDOT listed "designated special event weekends," ensuring the tunnels wouldn't be closed for events such as the Pittsburgh Marathon, Three Rivers Arts Festival and Three Rivers Regatta as well as Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. PennDOT limited the contractor to eight closures of the eastbound tunnel and eight closures of the westbound tunnel this year.

But those weekend closures will hurt small businesses, Ms. Wolf said.

"People can't get to anything they need to do on the weekends," she said, noting that most customers don't switch their shopping day to a weekday because of the closures -- they just don't come at all.

She has hosted weekday events to draw customers to Animal Nature, but that only helps so much.

"People have to be able to get to us," she said. "They just have to be able to get to us."

Ms. Wolf acknowledged that she's guilty of avoiding traffic-plagued areas.

"I don't even go," she said. "I take the back way to my store. I know the damage I'm doing to my fellow small business owners."

She said Animal Nature might have to cut staff by the end of the summer. She said some of her revenue can be made up with online sales from www.animalnature.net, but they won't make up all of it.

She doesn't blame the customers.

"I can't blame them," she said. "I completely understand."

Jamie Wallace, owner of Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen at South Braddock and Forbes avenues, said he notices a 25 to 30 percent dip in revenue when the tunnel is closed, but he said he doesn't want to "seem like a complainer."

"It's tough, though, because ... it is what it is," he said. "I understand that the construction needs to get done.

"What do you want us to do?" Mr. Wallace said. "Not repair the tunnel?"

Mr. Wallace said he doesn't know what the solution is other than to encourage people who live in the Regent Square area to visit local businesses when the tunnel is closed.

"If you're trapped in, that's beautiful," he said, citing South Braddock Avenue mainstays like D's Six Pax and Dogz and Square Cafe. "You just walk in and get a bite or a draft beer.

"If you're in that neighborhood, do your best to support the businesses."

neigh_city - neigh_east

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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