Squirrel Hill Tunnel advice: Steer clear

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How bad does it get when the inbound Squirrel Hill Tunnel closes for construction?

This bad: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is recommending that drivers consider using the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harmar and Route 28, or to Cranberry and Interstate 79, to completely steer clear of the Parkway East.

Epic backups have developed during two previous weekend closures of the inbound parkway as a $49.5 million tunnel-rehabilitation project continues. The inbound tunnel will be closed from 9 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday for the next two weekends. The outbound tunnel will be open but traffic may be stopped briefly while equipment is moved.

That means all inbound traffic must merge into a single lane and exit at Edgewood-Swissvale for a detour that uses South Braddock and Forbes avenues into Squirrel Hill.

"At times it was up to two hours on the detour in the last two weekend closures," PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said. "We definitely want people to consider alternate routes."

For those who choose to plunge into the abyss, PennDOT is urging all to practice the "zipper merge" -- using both lanes all the way to the merge point, then taking turns.

Several studies have determined that the zipper merge, which was pioneered by PennDOT and now is used in several other states, improves traffic flow by 15 percent to 20 percent. That's nine to 12 minutes off of an hourlong delay.

Traffic engineers also say it improves safety and reduces the possibility of road rage incidents. When drivers merge too soon, one lane backs up and those in line grow frustrated with anyone using the open lane to get ahead of them. Some will even straddle both lanes to block those trying to advance, creating a volatile situation.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation notes that zipper merging also eliminates the speed differences between the two lanes, something that can be hazardous.

There are two posted detours for Squirrel Hill Tunnel traffic. The daytime route (recommended for 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.) uses South Braddock and Forbes avenues, Beechwood Boulevard and Forward Avenue, seeking to lessen congestion in the Squirrel Hill business district.

The night detour keeps traffic on Forbes to Murray Avenue to reduce impact on residences along Beechwood Boulevard.

Police officers will be stationed at key intersections to control traffic, PennDOT said.

Drivers can check traffic cameras at www.511pa.com before starting their trip to determine the length of backups.

One option to avoid the jam at Edgewood-Swissvale is to take the earlier exit at Wilkinsburg-Route 8-Ardmore Boulevard, go north on Penn Avenue, left on Braddock Avenue and right at Forbes to reach the posted detour.

If congestion is especially severe, PennDOT suggests using the turnpike from Monroeville (Exit 57) to Allegheny Valley (Exit 48) and then Freeport Road and Route 28 to Downtown; or the turnpike to Cranberry (Exit 28) and then I-79 and the Parkway North.

Travel time from Monroeville to Downtown is roughly 30 minutes via the Route 28 detour and just over an hour via Cranberry, assuming no congestion along those routes.

PennDOT has canceled plans to close inbound Route 28 at Millvale this coming weekend. But there will be overnight closures today through Wednesday. (More below.)

While the Steelers are away for the next two weekends, the University of Pittsburgh has homecoming festivities this weekend, including an 11 a.m. football game Saturday against Louisville at Heinz Field.

It is planning a laser and fireworks extravaganza on the Oakland campus Friday night, followed by a Midnight Madness outdoor basketball event with the men's and women's teams playing on a court to be built on Bigelow Boulevard.

"We realize there are many activities occurring Downtown and in Oakland that will be affected by these closures," said a statement issued by PennDOT District Executive Dan Cessna.

"While we strive to minimize impacts, we have reached a point in the project where closures are needed these two particular weekends to keep work progressing and complete the removal of the westbound drop ceiling before winter."

Removal of the ceiling will add two feet of clearance, reducing the number of times traffic is stopped because of over-height trucks. That happens about 40 times a month at present, PennDOT said.

"We don't anticipate that the closures will be any more of a problem for our alumni attending homecoming events than other commuters, since not all of the attendees will be coming from that direction, and their arrival times will be staggered," Pitt spokesman John Fedele said. "Most of those alumni coming from the southeast who will need to use the tunnel to get here will already be familiar with the detours and will be able to plan their trips accordingly."

Other road work this week

The ramp from the inbound Boulevard of the Allies and Parkway East to the Liberty Bridge is closed through early November. The detour is to continue inbound on the parkway to Grant Street and turn right at Allies to reach the Liberty Bridge. Caution: If you take the Liberty Bridge-Crosstown off-ramp, you'll have no choice but to go to Crosstown.

On top of that, the Crosstown ramp will be closed from 8 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. next Monday.

The ramp from the inbound Parkway East to Second Avenue (Exit 71B) will be closed overnight Tuesday and Wednesday, weather permitting, so crews can replace an overhead sign. The ramp closes at 9 p.m. and reopens by 5 a.m., with the suggested detour via the Grant Street exit.

The ramp from Grant Street to the outbound Parkway East is closed around the clock through Oct. 18. The detour is via the Boulevard of the Allies to the on-ramp in Oakland, or to enter the parkway from Wood, Market or Stanwix streets.

Inbound Route 28 will be closed at the Millvale exit starting at 7 p.m. today through Wednesday, with traffic detoured using the off- and on-ramps. The road will reopen by 5 a.m. daily. Having weathered that, drivers will find single-lane traffic overnight on the inbound side starting at 8 p.m. today through Thursday between the 40th Street Bridge and East Ohio Street. Brief stoppages in both directions are possible for truck access.

Interstate 79 will have lane restrictions in both directions between Houston and Southpointe starting at 8 p.m. today through Thursday during repaving. Work concludes by 6 a.m. daily.

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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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