It's high time for right fix for Washington Boulevard flooding


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After more than 60 years of intermittent -- and sometimes deadly -- flash flooding on Washington Boulevard, we may be fixing only half the problem.

Four people were killed in a sudden storm that swamped the boulevard in the city's East End in August 2011. The two families who lost loved ones filed suit on Feb. 1 against the city, county, state and others for allowing this man-made "Drowning Pool'' to continue to exist.

By cosmic coincidence, the wrongful death suit was filed on the same day a report was presented to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to deal with the flooding. The report from MS Consulting suggests raising the road anywhere from 4 to 12 feet to keep it above floodwaters.

That's a good idea. It was also a good idea in 1953 when it was first suggested. That was just a couple of years after a flood killed a motorist on the boulevard, an event followed in the next couple of years by floods that stranded motorists and swamped cars but blessedly killed no one. In all, there have been at least 10 flash floods on the boulevard since 1951 with no remedies taken beyond the flashing warning lights and gates that finally went up in May 2012.

The irony of this road-raising plan, though, is that while it would effectively lift the road out of the basin, it would make the flooding worse in the valley beside it. By essentially sliding the roadway over to the east, high against the hillside, the sloping western shoulder would make this unnatural bathtub smaller. So water would go higher. Not good.

City Councilman Patrick Dowd represents the Highland Park slice of the Negley Run Watershed and also serves on the PWSA board. Mr. Dowd doesn't think much of the $100,000 study, saying it failed in its main charge: reduction of flooding.

That bathtub still needs a drain. A natural stream flowed through that valley until the late 19th century, fed by the surrounding hills. That stream was encased in massive pipe and buried underground more than 100 years ago, and those pipes that now flank the road are far too small to handle any serious downpour. Allegheny River Boulevard acts as a northern dam.

Freeing that stream from its concrete bounds, "daylighting'' the natural flow as the city and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers did so successfully at Nine Mile Run just a few years ago, would be a better fix. The trick will be how to get that stream under Allegheny River Boulevard so it can flow directly into the river, rather than needlessly tying up sewer capacity as it does now.

That won't be cheap, but neither is mixing rainwater with raw sewage and then either treating it or seeing the unholy mix flow directly into the rivers. MS Consulting will proceed on Mr. Dowd's request to provide more information and cost estimates. And talk about an overdue report -- this flooding has been a problem since before Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's father was born.

Paul Manion, co-attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has collected and cited the long history of the city 1) studying the problem 2) coming up with solutions and 3) not doing anything because it cost too much. But the suit also contends Allegheny County has violated the law for a quarter-century because it has never adopted a storm water management plan for the Allegheny River Watershed.

This is personal, not just business, for Mr. Manion. Four people died that rainy August weekday afternoon in 2011. Mary Saflin, 72, escaped her car but was swept to her death. Kimberly Griffith, 45, and daughters Mikaela, 8, and Brenna, 12, drowned in their minivan. The grandmother of those young girls, Cornelia Griffith, was in Mr. Manion's sister's wedding party.

"I don't want to sound messianic, because I'm not that religious,'' he said, but he and co-attorney Alan H. Perer name a slew of do-nothing villains in the suit, and he uses the word "homicide'' rather than "accident'' when he speaks of the deaths along that sunken road.

Named in the suit are the city, the PWSA, the county, the Allegheny County Sewer Authority, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the commonwealth and Chrysler, manufacturer of the minivan.

The list is long but so is the timeline. Somehow, that dam must be broken.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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