Wabash Tunnel HOV restrictions lifted

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The request seemed simple, straightforward and sensible: Suspend the car pool requirements at the Wabash Tunnel to provide an alternate route for drivers socked in by the two-year closure of outbound West Carson Street.

It has taken the Port Authority nearly three months to get an answer from the federal government as to whether that will be allowed.

But a bureaucratic logjam was broken this week, and the Federal Transit Administration notified the authority Wednesday that it had approved the waiver.

Drivers can start using the tunnel without observing the two-passenger High Occupancy Vehicle rules today, authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said. The tunnel operates one-way inbound during the morning rush and one-way outbound in the afternoon rush.

The ruling ended weeks of inaction, during which motorists have endured evening rush-hour jams without whatever relief the Wabash Tunnel might provide.

West Carson Street closed to outbound traffic in August for a $39 million reconstruction project that is expected to last until late 2015. On Aug. 9, Dan Cessna, district executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, sent an email to acting Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean asking if the authority, which owns the tunnel, could lift the requirement that vehicles must have at least two occupants during rush hours.

"This may provide motorists other options which may help alleviate congestion," Mr. Cessna wrote.

Port Authority made a verbal request to the FTA that same day and followed up with a written request the following Monday. The agency needed to approve the change because federal funds were used to pay most of the cost of renovating the former railroad tunnel and opening it to vehicles.

Since then, the request had been mired in a bureaucratic back-and-forth that drew the attention of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and other state and local officials.

"Mike Doyle and Bob Casey really went to bat for us," Mr. Fitzgerald said Wednesday night. "It took longer than what we would have liked. I think a lot of people will avail themselves of it."

Responding to an inquiry from the Post-Gazette last week, an FTA spokeswoman said the agency still awaited ridership information from the Port Authority and suggested that the newspaper check back "in a month or two."

That information was provided Tuesday.

The Wabash Tunnel connects West Carson near Station Square with Woodruff Street near Route 51 and is used by some as an alternate to the Fort Pitt and Liberty tunnels. It will be open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. inbound and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. outbound on weekdays. On weekends, it is open outbound from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The tunnel closes daily from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

At a meeting in early September, Brigid Hynes-Cherin, a regional administrator for FTA, told Port Authority officials the agency "would need to have some specific information" to consider lifting the HOV requirement. But it wasn't until Oct. 23 that the authority learned what information Ms. Hynes-Cherin needed, which was contained in an email from FTA to the authority.

Part of the reason for the delay was the 16-day federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1 and caused the furlough of nearly all FTA staffers. But the agency had nearly two months before the shutdown to resolve the issue.

Part of the delay stemmed from the agency's apparent concern that lifting the HOV requirement would have a detrimental effect on public transit service -- a misplaced concern because no bus routes use the Wabash Tunnel.

Even though Ms. McLean said in her Aug. 12 letter that opening the tunnel to all commuters would not adversely affect transit, the agency was still asking about that issue in the Oct. 23 email.

"What would be the impact on the busway if it is opened to general traffic?" the agency asked, in an apparent reference to the West Busway, which is nearly three miles from the Wabash Tunnel.

Bev Collier of Sheraden, a motorist who has been urging officials to open the tunnel to all, noted that when it was renovated, one of the advertised benefits was a cut in air pollution.

"I find it incredibly annoying to drive PAST the tunnel each day coming home from work to see nary a car turning to drive through it -- only to proceed further up West Carson to SIT for long stretches of time waiting to get through the West End Circle traffic -- where MUCH idling and MANY pollutants are being emitted," she told the Post-Gazette in an email.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published November 6, 2013 1:27 PM

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