The Morning File: Light's hard to see at end of our tunnels

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We got some really bad news last Friday, and by that we don't mean the word that some wrong-side-of-the-tracks cousin of Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted correctly -- on March 22 -- six additional weeks of winter.

No, we're talking about PennDOT's announcement that it was postponing last weekend's planned shutdown of outbound traffic through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel to enable its ongoing rehabilitation.

(We like use of that word, "rehabilitation," for the tunnel work, as if it's a troubled offender the state is trying once more to straighten out: "C'mon, tunnel, get with the program. It's time to quit creating those backups. Three strikes and you're out, so don't cause any more problems, or you'll end up ignored and forgotten by almost everyone, just like the Wabash Tunnel.")

As for how we could be disappointed that the Squirrel Hill Tunnel was available instead of shut down last week, here's the confounding logic:

Every time we use a tunnel around here on the many days they're open, we end up in some kind of traffic jam on one side or the other -- or most likely both. But every time we've seen a Pittsburgh tunnel closed and traffic detoured around it, preceded by ominous warnings that some kind of "carmageddon" is about to ravage our way of life for 48 hours or four months or whatever, we seem to get wherever we're going more quickly.

Call it PennDOT's Paradox. Anyone remember the spring and summer of 2002, when the outbound Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel were closed and most normal traffic was diverted over the West End Bridge? Raise your hand if that felt like the smoothest, nonstop travel you ever had on highways to the south and west of Downtown. Some of us mourned the disappearance at the work's end of orange cones and vests, hard hats and detour signs.

Here's what former Post-Gazette transportation writer Joe Grata wrote in his April 14, 2002, column referencing earlier forecasts that commutes could be three to four times longer as a result of the Fort Pitt closure: "Other than a few situations where accidents or breakdowns occurred, I haven't heard from anyone who took three or four times longer to reach destinations. It wasn't supposed to be this way, but some people have found it easier to get around."

And at the end of that year's project, with things back to "normal," he wrote on Aug. 2: "Wednesday's reopening of the outbound Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel has failed to alleviate traffic on the inbound Parkway East. In fact, some traffic was as bad, or worse, yesterday as during the four months of repairs and improvements to the bridge and tunnel."

See, PennDOT's Paradox. There's presumably some explanation relating to how other motorists during such times stay home or take alternate routes or how many extra police are called out to manually control signals and ensure steady traffic flow. But it still seems to defy logic, just like the paradoxical conversation that occurs almost daily about how my wife and I should leave our Downtown jobs later, after the 4 to 6 p.m. rush, because we'll then get home sooner.

"But how can we get home sooner if we leave later?" she asks, naturally. "That doesn't make any sense."

"I know, I know -- don't ask me how. That's just the way the traffic makes it work out."

The good news is that there remain at least three weekends in April when outbound traffic is to be detoured around the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. The Liberty Tunnels, meanwhile, are to have overnight closures starting next month and a pair of 18-day around-the-clock shutdowns later this year.

Somehow, the regular traffic backup at the Liberty Tunnels is not as maddening as at your other Pittsburgh tunnels. It's got traffic signals on each side, for one thing. Traffic coming to a standstill for a red light is more justifiable than the Squirrel Hill and Fort Pitt slowdowns, in which you crawl and brake before the tunnel, start speeding up inside it and come out to a "What the heck was that all about?" free-flowing experience on the other side.

The luckiest people in Pittsburgh, of course, are the chosen few able to situate their homes and workplaces in a way that they never have to use a tunnel, if they don't want. More admirable are those who have attained the practical knowledge to create their own detours around every tunnel.

If you fall into neither category, then Godspeed -- you need all His help you can get.

Transportation - intelligencer

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.Reg Henry is off today.


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