The Panama Canal is nearly 2,200 miles from Pittsburgh, but ripples from a $5.25 billion canal expansion will be felt here starting next year.
That's when construction crews are expected to excavate the grassy strip in SouthSide Works known as Tunnel Park. There's a railroad tunnel down there, and CSX Transportation wants to raise the roof on it.
The tunnel is one of 61 places on CSX's extensive mid-Atlantic freight system that lack enough clearance to allow taller "double-stack" trains to pass. The railroad, the federal government and six states have entered a partnership called the National Gateway that calls for spending $842 million to open the system to the taller trains.
The railroad and governments say the project will bring myriad benefits: more efficient freight movement that cuts consumer costs; less pollution; construction and freight industry jobs; and fewer trucks on congested highways.
A fully loaded double-stack train can carry the equivalent of 280 truckloads of freight, said Randy Cheetham, a CSX regional vice president.
They hope to finish the work by 2015, when bigger ships that will be able to use the expanded Panama Canal will start plying East Coast ports, including Philadelphia, generating more demand for trains to move goods in the East and Midwest.
At the SouthSide Works, a $15 million to $25 million project calls for removing the grassy median between South Water Street and Tunnel Boulevard, taking the roof off the railroad tunnel and installing a new one that is 18 to 30 inches higher.
The park will be restored and look about the same as now, except for leveling of a sunken area near Hot Metal Street, said Megan Stearman, spokeswoman for the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, which has been working with the railroad to minimize the project impact.
CSX officials said the construction, expected to start early in 2011 and last a year, will cause some disruption to traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists. A temporary detour of the bike trail that passes through the corridor is possible, but the trail will not be closed.
The project area stretches from 26th Street to Hot Metal Street.
It is one of six projects CSX is planning in Allegheny County to open its lines to taller trains. The others figure to be less disruptive.
The tracks that pass beneath the Smithfield Street Bridge near Station Square will be lowered about one foot, to provide a 21-foot clearance. The $3 million project will require digging up the foundation of the track bed and construction of a temporary track to keep trains moving during the work.
The work will be contained in the railroad right of way and will not affect vehicle traffic or pedestrians, CSX officials said. It likely will begin in spring and take five to six months.
CSX later this year will remove an unused overhead walkway at Chestnut Street and Third Avenue in Coraopolis. Railroad officials said the borough did not want the structure saved.
In McKees Rocks, tracks will be lowered where the CSX line passes beneath an Ohio Central Railroad bridge, south of the McKees Rocks Bridge and east of Island Avenue. No impact is expected on nearby properties or roads.
Trusses on a railroad bridge over Chartiers Creek in Pittsburgh's Esplen neighborhood will be modified to create sufficient clearance. Tracks passing below the Boston Bridge in Versailles will be lowered 6 to 8 inches. Neither project will affect the surrounding areas, officials said.
The Obama administration this year awarded $98 million in economic stimulus funds to four states for National Gateway work, including $35 million to Pennsylvania. The state will provide $35 million in matching funds.
CSX and its affiliates have committed $395 million to the $842 million initiative, and the railroad is planning to build a $50 million cargo terminal in the Pittsburgh area. CSX is looking at sites in Allegheny and Beaver counties and hopes to pick one next year, with a construction start in 2012 or 2013, Mr. Cheetham said.
Transportation advocates have touted public-private partnerships as a way to finance badly needed infrastructure improvements at a time of scarce government resources.
"We certainly see [National Gateway] as a model" for such partnerships, Mr. Cheetham said. "We hope the public realizes the benefit of investments of this type."
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.