The Wabash Tunnel

The Wabash Tunnel Western Portal off of Woodruff Street    The Wabash Tunnel City-side Portal on Mount Washington

Pittsburgh's Money Pit

The Wabash Tunnel was burrowed through Mount Washington in 1903 to link the southern portion of George Gould's Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway with the new terminal complex in downtown Pittsburgh. The 3450 foot tunnel was the city's first major transportation tunnel built through the mountainous barrier of "Coal Hill".

The Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway operated for only four years before going into bankruptcy. In 1916 much of the railroads property was bought by the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad. In 1925 a landslide did major damage to the north portal and the connecting bridge structure. Repairs were made and passenger service through the tunnel continued until 1931. Limited freight service continued until 1946, when the Wabash Terminal in downtown Pittsburgh was destroyed by fire.

The Wabash Tunnel North Portal on Mount Washington

The often abused and unused Wabash Tunnel became a lure for other doomed transportation projects. Passenger rail service through the tunnel continued until 1931. That same year, Allegheny County bought the tunnel for $3,000,000 with the intention of converting it to an automobile traffic tunnel to relieve some of the growing congestion at the Liberty Tubes.

A $5000 feasibility study was commissioned in 1933 to determine whether the tunnel was suitable for automobiles. Old stories say that railroaders had to lay low when passing through the unventilated tunnel. The problem of ventilation and the cost of addressing the issue were enough to scrap that project. While the county deliberated, limited freight rail service continued through the tunnel until 1946, when the Wabash Terminal in downtown Pittsburgh was destroyed by fire.

The Wabash Terminal North Portal.
The Wabash bridge leads into the Wabash Tunnel, exiting on the south end along Woodruff Street.

The tunnel remained dormant from 1946 until the Port Authority purchased the property in 1970. The following year the transit authority began a $6 million project to ready the tunnel for "Skybus," a controversial rubber-tired automated people mover. A demonstration project of the Skybus system was built in South Park. If successful, a bridge would have been built across the Monongehela using the original Wabash Bridge piers to get the system into downtown. In the end, cost and politics doomed the project in Pittsburgh.

The Wabash Terminal South Portal - c1963.
The condition of the South Portal of the Wabash Tunnel along Woodruff Street, circa 1963.

Between 1994 and 1997, an additional $8 million in renovations were made to the tunnel by the Port Authority, this time in conjunction with plans for a major busway to serve the western suburbs and the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. As with Skybus, this project envisions the construction of a new bridge across the Monongahela River, possibly using the old piers from the Wabash bridge.

In 1996, a $3.1 million contract was awarded to demolish the Skybus runway system and install new paving and drainage inside the Wabash Tunnel. In 1998, a new portal building was constructed at the west end of the Wabash Tunnel and the existing portal building on the city side, visible from downtown on the face of Mt. Washington, was rebuilt. Ventilation, electrical and communication services were also updated.

A Skybus train heads towards
the North Station loading platform.
A Skybus train heading along the tracks above Corrigan Drive in South Park in 1966.

By the end of the 20th century, with millions of dollars of renovations again performed in anticipation of the tunnel's rebirth, no final decisions had been made on the new Airport Busway project. Ideas were still being submitted, debated and challenged in court. Only one thing seemed certain, and that was that as long as the Wabash Tunnel occupied a space in the Pittsburgh landscape, it would draw the attention of those with grand schemes and grand dreams. It had become one of Pittsburgh's biggest money pits.

Over the years, several off-the-wall suggestions had been forwarded on ways to use the Wabash Tunnel, other than as a way to throw away good tax dollars. There was once a proposal to turn it into cocktail lounge known as "The Cave." In 1974, an avid bowler asked the Port Authority if he could use the tunnel to set a world record for bowling the longest strike ever. Others jokingly consider it the largest indoor bird sanctuary, for pigeons at least, this side of the National Aviary.

The Wabash Tunnel North Portal on Mount Washington
The North Portal of the Wabash Tunnel along the Mount Washington hillside.

Finally ... The HOV Lanes!

In 2000, plans to link the Wabash Tunnels to the new Port Authority's $275 million West Busway were dropped. The Money Pit had claimed another victim. All of the tax dollars spent on planning and related construction had been wasted. As the Wabash waited patiently for it's next victim, plans were introduced to open the tunnel to vehicular traffic during rush hours as a HOV accessway into and out of downtown Pittsburgh to relieve congestion at the Liberty and Fort Pitt Tunnels.

In 2003, the Port Authority awarded an $11 million bid to build ramps to link the tunnel to Carson Street across from Station Square and to Route 51 at the southern end. As Pittsburghers patiently awaited the inevitable bad news that the project would be somehow abandoned, the unthinkable actually happened!

The Wabash Tunnel Western Portal off of Woodruff Street    The Wabash Tunnel City-side Portal on Mount Washington
The South Portal along Woodruff Street (left) and the view looking out the North Portal.

On December 26, 2004, nearly two years after their 100th anniversary, and a mere 59 years since being permanently mothballed by the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad, and a mere $31.1-plus million or so taxpayer dollars later, the Wabash Tunnel was reborn as our city's newest HOV (High Occupation Vehicle) accessway. The tunnel is a one-way road that is reversed to accomodate the differing traffic flow patterns. As hard as it was to imagine for Pittsburgh's old-timers, the tunnel was actually open to vehicular traffic.

Ramp leading to the north portal of the Wabash Tunnel
Ramp leading to the north portal of the Wabash Tunnel.

It was a great day for the city of Pittsburgh, but the cautious few had their doubts. Was the curse of the Wabash finally laid to rest? Had the demonic hex that afflicted this hole in the Mount for the past 100 years been finally been exorcised? Only time could tell. The city kept its' fingers crossed and hoped for the best.

Graffic Showing Traffic Flow Times of Operation for the
 Wabash Tunnel
* Graffic courtesy of the Post-Gazette *

The Saga Continues ...

Well, it's now January of 2007, only two short years since the opening of the tunnel that was to revitalize traffic flow in and out of the city. Pittsburgher's are once again shaking their heads in disbelief as the mounting cost of operating the century-old money pit is starting to take a toll on Port Authority and municipal coffers.

Forecast to handle approximately 4500 vehicles per day, daily traffic flow in April of 2005 was closer to 150 vehicles per day. It was estimated that the tunnel was costing taxpayers $12 for each vehicle that passed through. The Port Authority, already struggling with budgetary problems from its regular transit operations, is paying nearly $600,000 per year to a private firm to maintain the facility. If the Port Authority closes the tunnel, then the agency will be forced to repay $20,000,000 in federal grant money used to refurbish it in the first place.

Read the following 2007 Post-Gazette articles for a look into the madness:

"Wabash Tunnel Has Become An Expensive Venture"

"PAT faces tough decision on Wabash Tunnel"

The entrance to the Wabash Ramp in Pittsburgh.

A Bomb Shelter

Heads are spinning and confusion is setting in. The brightest minds in Pittsburgh can't figure this one out. Maybe the guy who wanted to turn it into a cocktail lounge had the right idea.

Another suggestion would be to sell it to some eccentric millionaire who renovates it into a private home. There's plenty of square feet to develop, there are two private driveways leading to the front and rear entrance, the veranda on the city side will offer a spectacular view, and the home can double as a bomb shelter in case of a terrorist attack.

The Wabash Tunnel.

Whatever the future holds in store for the much-maligned Wabash Tunnel, nothing can take away the fact that this prized piece of real estate has most definitely earned its' place in the annals Pittsburgh city lore.

* Last Modified - January 30, 2007 *

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