Wabash Tunnel, closed since 1946, to carry traffic starting tomorrow

It's not just another hole in the wall

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Over the years, the Wabash Railroad Tunnel has been studied as a traffic alternative to the Liberty Tunnels, rebuilt for a Skybus transit system that never happened, used to warehouse old buses and suggested to be the world's longest bowling alley.

The Port Authority estimates that the Wabash Tunnel, built in 1903, eventually will be used by nearly 4,500 vehicles a day. This is a view of the south portal.
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For much of that time, its northern portal, about 75 feet above West Carson Street, has stood out as an isolated hole -- some have said an eyesore -- on the face of Mount Washington, an unusual sight from Downtown.

But starting tomorrow, the 101-year-old Wabash Tunnel will no longer be Pittsburgh's Tunnel to Nowhere.

The Port Authority will open it as a "mixed-use" facility. That is, for car and van pools of two or more people during weekday rush hours, and for any motorist the rest of the time.

It will mark the first time for public access since passenger trains quit running through the Wabash Tunnel in 1931, although freight trains used it until 1946. Two stone piers still stand in the Monongahela River from the railroad bridge that once connected the narrow tunnel to Downtown.

Once people become accustomed to the tunnel, the Port Authority estimates it will be used by as many as 4,500 vehicles a day, either as a convenience because of its proximity to Station Square and the South Side or as an option to the traffic-clogged Fort Pitt and Liberty tunnels.

That's still only about half of its capacity, even though its single lane is reversible: Inbound weekday mornings, outbound weekday afternoons and all holidays and weekends.

Nevertheless, Henry Nutbrown, engineering-construction manager for the authority, said the Wabash Tunnel would positively impact traffic flow.

"Every vehicle that uses the Wabash Tunnel means one less vehicle in the Liberty Tunnels or the Fort Pitt Tunnel," he said.

Nutbrown predicted twice as many vehicles would use the tunnel in the outbound direction as inbound. In the morning, once traffic gets to the bottom of West Liberty Avenue or Green Tree Hill on the Parkway West, drivers are likely to stick with the existing tunnels rather than divert to Route 51 and the Wabash Tunnel unless the South Side or Station Square happens to be their destination.

In addition, a minimum two-to-a-vehicle requirement applies during rush hours, limiting who can use the 1.1-mile route, from West Carson Street at the north end to Saw Mill Run Boulevard (Route 51) at the south end, via a short stretch of Woodruff Street.

In the afternoon, especially when a breakdown or accident snarls the Liberty or Fort Pitt tunnels, "The Wabash Tunnel can be a quick getaway for lots of people who otherwise would be sitting in traffic," he said.

On weekends, when the Wabash will be open outbound to all vehicles regardless of occupancy, the authority will provide a time-saving outlet for patrons of Station Square and people who park in its lots and garage for special events. That includes Steelers fans who take the nearby T or Gateway Clipper boats for transportation to the North Shore.

Nutbrown said three traffic signals at the Station Square end of the Smithfield Street Bridge have been interconnected to expedite flow.

The Port Authority is not planning any ceremony when the Wabash officially opens at 6 a.m. tomorrow because of financial problems that are bringing record fare increases, service reductions and employee layoffs.

At a time when Port Authority budget shortfalls are $30 million this year and an estimated $45 million for the 2005-06 fiscal year, the Wabash Tunnel is going to add $1 million a year to the tab. Some of that money initially will come from the federal government as part of start-up operations.

Bruce & Merilees, a private company, will be paid the $1 million fee to provide a supervisor and two workers to change gates and signs controlling the reversible lane, monitor closed-circuit video surveillance and carbon monoxide detection systems, clear snow and respond to accidents and breakdowns.

The tunnel is 20 feet, 10 inches wide, wide enough for vehicles to get around a crippled vehicle but about 4 feet shy of being capable of creating two lanes to safely carry traffic in both directions at once. The speed limit will be 25 mph, except at the north portal, where there's a 90-degree turn to and from a 1,500-foot ramp, where it will be 15 mph.

The Port Authority capital cost for the Wabash Tunnel is at least $30 million, including the latest construction, electrical and signal work, and $11 million that a court has ordered it to pay for land where a 160-space parking lot has been built at the north end. The authority took property by eminent domain and paid the owner, Buncher Corp., $5.7 million, but Buncher challenged the amount. The Port Authority plans to appeal Commonwealth Court's order.

But the Wabash Tunnel has been a money pit for far longer than the latest venture, dating to 1931, when Allegheny County bought it from the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad for $3 million. The idea at the time was to convert it to a traffic tunnel to provide relief for the Liberty Tunnels.

The Port Authority paid $6 million to remodel the tunnel for a rubber-tired, sophisticated Skybus transit system. The system never materialized. The Port Authority later paid $3.2 million to tear out the concrete guideways on which the high-tech vehicles would have run.

As much as $10 million has been spent on studies, engineering and designs for various proposals over the years. Consequently, more than $50 million of taxpayer money has been poured into the Wabash Tunnel.

The old hole in the wall has been the butt of jokes and suggestions, too. A bowler once asked the Port Authority to use the tunnel to set a world's record for bowling the longest strike ever. Someone also submitted a proposal to convert it into a restaurant-cocktail lounge named "The Cave."

Other ideas included a mushroom farm, skateboard court and a unique housing for the elderly project.

Controversy over the Wabash Tunnel dates to the 19th century.

The plan for the tunnel was born in the late 1800s, when railroads considered the city a gold mine for freight and passenger trains.

The Wabash Railroad, trying to build a 60-mile link into Pittsburgh, waged a long, bitter war with the old Pennsylvania Railroad for property rights.

The Pennsy controlled a tight market of lucrative customers -- and many politicians -- but city residents became fed up. They blamed inadequate freight service and high shipping rates for paralyzing business and causing mass unemployment because of the railroad monopoly. The fight for the 3,450-foot tunnel began in 1890, but what headlines of the day referred to as the Battle of the Wabash delayed completion for 13 years.

In 1903, in retaliation against the inroads the Wabash Railroad was making in the city, paid vandals ripped out thousands of miles of telegraph wire owned by the Wabash interests.

The Wabash Railroad won its fight but ended up a financial catastrophe, leaving the tunnel to become a seemingly worthless hole punched through Mount Washington's basement. Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad took over and used it until 1946.

Now the region's motorists can have a turn.

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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