North Shore Connector said to be on schedule and under budget

As if the challenge of urban subway construction weren't enough, there are a few urban myths for the Port Authority to deal with as North Shore Connector construction advances to the home stretch.

No, the Allegheny River is not leaking uncontrollably into the subway tunnels.

No, the grades at both ends of the tunnels aren't too steep to allow for removal of a disabled train.

No, the authority won't be too broke to operate service to the North Shore when the project is completed in March 2012.

The project is alive and well and 83 percent complete, said Winston Simmonds, the authority's rail operations/engineering officer, during a walking tour of the 1.2-mile, $528.8 million extension of the Light Rail Transit system this week.

"Still on schedule and under budget," Mr. Simmonds said, making his way through tunnels where there were a few construction-related damp spots but no gushing leaks and, sadly, no sign of that truckload of cash that a political TV commercial showed being dumped into the project.

The view from underground

A city that prides itself on its vistas will be getting a new one with completion of the new Gateway Center station -- the Downtown skyline seen from underground.

The shell of the station is nearly complete and finishing work has begun. From the completed platform riders will be able to gaze through a glass atrium and see Gateway Center skyscrapers and PPG Place.

Five huge concrete columns to support the station roof rise at alternating angles from the platform, one leaning left, the next leaning right, and so on. They are the Leaning Towers of Pittsburgh, deliberately engineered to provide escalator clearance.

The old Gateway loop is being repurposed to provide space for electrical, signal, ventilation, communications and fiber optics equipment -- more than a dozen separate control rooms.

At the spot where inbound trains formerly entered the loop to turn around, they will instead make a right turn into the new station.

The authority at one time had planned to keep the old station open while the new one was built. It changed that plan to save money (an estimated $4 million to $5 million) when the project was in financial danger.

"It was the right decision. I don't know how we would have done it," Mr. Simmonds said, observing the construction debris and general disarray around the old platform. "We know it's an impact on our customers, but in terms of time and costs, it was the right thing to do."

Stroll under the Allegheny

There are wet spots and a few muddy puddles in the twin tunnels that run from Gateway Center under the Allegheny River to the North Side station next to PNC Park.

Water gets in at unfinished places on either end of the tunnel, and during construction the contractor has had to bring the water table down using pumps. After a coupling on a pump failed a few weeks ago, a TV crew that happened to be touring the tunnels captured video of ankle-deep water.

The river is not flowing into the tunnels, Mr. Simmonds said. In fact, the 11-inch-thick concrete tunnel enclosure is about 22 feet below the river bottom.

The tunnels are designed to be "dry" but not "waterproof," he said. The design standards allow up to 125 gallons per day to penetrate the enclosure, Mr. Simmonds said, an amount easily removed with drains and pumps.

The tunnel walls show some calcium stains from oozing moisture. Those will be cleaned off and additional grouting applied, but there will be moisture staining along the walls, he said.

Tracks have been installed in the tunnels from just outside Gateway Center all the way to the rear of the Allegheny station next to Heinz Field, where the system will end. So far, no trains have plied the tunnels -- just construction trucks mounted on rail wheels.

The 7- to 7.5-percent grades at either end of the tunnels are comparable to others on the system, including the slope inside the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, Mr. Simmonds said. The most extreme grade on the LRT system is on the Brown Line to Allentown, about 10 percent.

So this is 'nowhere'

At the other end of the tunnels, rising to the entrance to the North Side subway station, one can see a new Hyatt Place hotel, a Residence Inn by Marriott, a new concert amphitheater, office headquarters for Equitable Gas and StarKist Co., five restaurants, a parking garage, Heinz Field and PNC Park.

"One billion dollars in investment," Mr. Simmonds said. "I wouldn't call it 'nowhere.' "

He was referring to a campaign commercial aired by Tom Corbett, now governor-elect, ridiculing the project as a "Tunnel to Nowhere."

"We're not a catalyst. We're a complement to the development that's going on here already," Mr. Simmonds said.

A distinctive curving silver ceiling has been installed over the sprawling platform of the underground North Side station, which sits catercorner from the baseball stadium. The station should be complete by spring, Mr. Simmonds said.

"We're open to selling the naming rights," he said.

After reaching the North Side station, trains will climb to elevated tracks along Reedsdale Street to reach the end of the line, an elevated station across the street from Heinz Field.

The open-air station platform has been constructed and a sheltering roof is taking shape in the center.

From the platform, the Carnegie Science Center, Rivers Casino, Highmark SportsWorks, Community College of Allegheny County and Heinz Field are visible in the near distance. More "nowhere."

The tracks approaching the station have a double crossover similar to the one now in use at Wood Street that will allow trains to use both sides of the center platform for boarding and unloading.

The "tail" track beyond the station can be used to stash as many as six two-car trains for rapid deployment after a stadium event.

Can they afford it?

Mr. Simmonds said the North Shore Connector was projected to add about $1 million to the authority's operating costs (the authority has a $300 million-plus operating budget). With its chronic financial problems and imminent layoffs, the authority has scrapped plans to hire additional personnel for the subway extension, so its cost will be less than originally projected.

"We will do more with less," Mr. Simmonds said.

The frequency of service to the North Shore, and whether it will be free, has not been determined.

Mr. Simmonds, who previously said all trains would serve the North Shore, said that issue hasn't been finalized. The system is designed so that trains can be reversed at Wood Street or the new Gateway Center station.

The authority would like to attract a sponsor to underwrite free rides on the connector, he said. That would make commuter parking on the North Shore a more attractive option.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at First Published November 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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