Wabash Tunnel hits yet another roadblock

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Symbols of bad luck: a black cat, spilled salt, the number 13, the Wabash Tunnel.

For the past 11 months, the Wabash has been the Little Tunnel That Couldn't, closed for long stretches by crashes that damaged the gates and other traffic control equipment.

The latest incident was Saturday morning, when the driver of a Cadillac roared through at high speed and crashed into a gate and barrels at the outbound exit. The tunnel had been closed since then before reopening Thursday afternoon.

Not that the tunnel had an illustrious history before vehicles started ramming it. Renovated for $50 million and reopened in 2004 as a reversible high-occupancy vehicle facility, it has been notorious for how little traffic it attracts.

But now, the tunnel has a chance for its moment in the headlights. In response to requests from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and others, the Port Authority, which owns the tunnel, has requested permission to waive the HOV requirements for the duration of the West Carson Street reconstruction project.

West Carson is closed around the clock to outbound traffic during a $39 million reconstruction project that won't be finished until 2015. Serious backups have occurred, especially during the evening rush hour.

Opening the Wabash Tunnel to all traffic "may provide motorists other options which may help alleviate congestion," wrote Dan Cessna, PennDOT district executive, in a request to the transit agency.

Typically, the tunnel is open to inbound cars with two or more occupants from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays and to outbound car pools from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. At most other times, it is open to single-occupant vehicles until it closes for the night at 11 p.m.

To relax the HOV requirement, the Port Authority must obtain permission from the Federal Transit Administration. Without such permission, the authority would put itself at risk of having to repay federal funds that were used to renovate the tunnel.

The authority asked for the waiver in a letter to the FTA and is waiting for a reply.

And now, the federal government is shut down and 501 of the 529 people in the FTA workforce have been furloughed, making it unlikely that an answer will be forthcoming until the Washington gridlock ends.

Can this tunnel buy a break?

Maybe: Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said repairs to the damaged equipment were completed Thursday and the tunnel reopened at 3 p.m.

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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.


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