Underground detours cause delay in Penn Avenue project in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood

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Reconstruction of a four-block section of Penn Avenue in Garfield is behind schedule after underground utility work took longer than expected.

The project began Aug. 19, 2013, and was to be completed by early December of this year, but the finish line has been pushed back at least a couple months, said Pat Hassett, Pittsburgh's assistant public works director for transportation and engineering.

"We ran into a lot of unknowns in the ground. We're finding utilities that we didn't know were there and utilities we knew were there but weren't where we thought. So we had to adjust the plans," Mr. Hassett said.

"Underground is always tough," he said. "It's an old city, and documentation wasn't as good as we would have liked back in the day."

The $4.7 million project has caused closure of Penn Avenue to eastbound traffic from Mathilda to Evaline streets. The plans call for a complete overhaul of the street, with full reconstruction of pavement, sidewalks and lighting, and improvements for pedestrians.

Mr. Hassett said the project's cost likely would rise because of the utility complications but hadn't yet determined by how much.

During the nearly eight months since half of the road was closed, little visible progress has occurred on the surface as crews labored to relocate underground storm sewers. The contractor, Matcon Diamond Inc. of the South Side, only recently started digging up the pavement near Mathilda.

Meanwhile, the lane open to westbound traffic resembles a moonscape, with rugged pavement and potholes.

"Basically, it's been a difficult start to a project that is much needed," said Richard Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., the neighborhood group that has pushed for improvements for more than a decade. "Like a birthing process, it's painful."

In addition to utility complications, crews found soil that was contaminated by rusting streetcar rails buried under the street, he said.

The impact on merchants in the corridor has been uneven. Some have reported a loss of business while others say they haven't been affected.

Aggie Brose, deputy director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said she warned business owners that the construction would cause "a living nightmare. But at the end of the day, it will enhance your businesses and property values."

She said few complaints have been received so far. "They are being very patient during this disruption."

"There are folks that have lost business and lost customers with all the disruption," Mr. Swartz said. "It's going to take a while for them to bounce back.

"When it's all said and done, Penn Avenue will be a well-lighted place, it will be more inviting, more friendly to pedestrians," he said.

Planning will begin soon for a second phase, reconstructing Penn from Evaline to Graham Street, Mr. Swartz said.

Carl Kirschbaum, co-owner of Carl's TV & Electronics, a repair shop that has done business on Penn Avenue for decades, has a parking lot and a business that doesn't depend on impulse shoppers and browsers.

"I would say it hasn't affected me," he said. "I'll be glad when it's done."

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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