The "T" Light Rail Transit System
In the early 1980s, the City of Pittsburgh underwent many changes. The Mellon, Oxford Centre and PPG Plaza towers rose skywards, and many of the streets were cleared of the cumbersome trolley tracks, that for so many years criss-crossed the Golden Triangle. The rails did not disappear completely, they just moved underground into the Port Authority's Pittsburgh Light Rail system, or "T" as it is commonly known.
Pittsburgh Light Rail is a 26-mile transit system that services mainly the South Hills suburbs and downtown Pittsburgh. The "T" is mostly an at-grade light rail line that functions as a subway within confines of the Golden Triangle. A connecting line serves locations along the North Shore via a tunnel that travels beneath the Allegheny River.
The modern Pittsburgh Light Rail system is the successor to the Pittsburgh Railways trolley system. Once the largest surviving streetcar system in the United States, by the early 1970s, only a handful of streetcar routes were still in operation, most of which used the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, just south of the Monongahela River, to service the South Hills suburbs.
The Port Authority was planning to scrap the entire rail system in favor of busways and a 92-mile automated guideway transit system, developed by Westinghouse Electric, called Skybus. The Skybus Transit Expressway was planned to include routes to the north, south, east, southeast and west, including connections to both the Pittsburgh International Airport, the Allegheny County Airport, Monroeville Mall and Kennywood Amusement Park.
In 1975, the revolutionary Skybus system was abandoned in favor of a network of busways, and in downtown Pittsburgh, a system of dedicated bus lanes. In the southern suburbs, community opposition rallied in favor of retaining the electric-rail trolley system and upgrading it to a modern light rail transit (LRT) system. In the end, the LRT option was adopted for the Southern suburbs, along with development of busway systems for the Eastern suburbs.
On May 7, 1979, the Port Authority received a $265 million federal grant for construction of a downtown subway and modernization of suburban light rail. On December 10, 1980, construction began on Stage One of Pittsburgh's first "modern" light rail system. The first line to be completed was a renovated route to the south, the Overbrook (Shannon-Drake) route, which used the former Pittsburgh Railways right-of-way from South Hills Junction to South Hills Village. This initial line, using upgraded PCC trolley cars, was completed and began operation on April 15, 1984.
In downtown Pittsburgh, construction of the subway portion of the system was underway. For most Pittsburghers, this was possibly the most fascinating part of the project. Liberty Avenue, Grant Street and Sixth Avenue were first cut, then covered and resurfaced. Underground, work proceeded on a two-lane rail line with four subterranean boarding stations, at Steel Plaza, Wood Street, Penn Station and Gateway Center.
The subway utilizes portions of an old tunnel that was first built in 1828 as part of the historic Pennsylvania Canal. The tunnel, between First Avenue and Penn Station, was converted in 1865 for use by the Pennsylvania Railroad and renamed the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Extension Railroad Tunnel. Over 150 years old, the tunnel was upgraded again and incorporated into Pittsburgh's new subway system.
The subway was linked to the southern line by the refurbished Pennsylvania Railroad Panhandle Bridge, originally built in 1903, which crossed the Monongahela River, and the renovated Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, first opened in 1904, that runs between Carson Street and the South Hills Junction. The Downtown segment was officially opened for light rail traffic on July 3, 1985.
The Golden Triangle portion of the subway includes a short spur line from the Steel Plaza Station to Penn Station, where commuters to the eastern suburbs can link up with the East Busway. The seldom used spur line runs under the USX Tower and is the only part of the light rail system that is single-tracked. The tunnel in this section could not be widened because of the proximity to the skyscraper's support beams.
The light rail system also includes the 52-Route, or Brown Line, which runs from the South Hills Junction over Mount Washington, then across the Monongahela River to downtown Pittsburgh. The line runs up Warrington Avenue and down Arlington Avenue to the Panhandle Bridge ramp. This is the only route that does not use the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel. The overland on-street route is a throwback to the old trolley lines. It features street-level boarding at designated bus stops instead of independant loading platforms like other routes. The line also serves as a bypass in case of tunnel failure.
Work on the Beechview portion of the southern line, which extended through Dormont and Mount Lebanon, continued for two more years. Again utilizing existing Pittsburgh Railways right-of-ways, the entire line was double-tracked. The Fallowfield Bridge was reconstructed and Broadway Avenue resurfaced. The Dormont/Mount Lebanon Tunnel, a 3,000-foot long bore, was constructed beneath Washington Road, from McFarland Road to Shady Drive East, linking Dormont and Mount Lebanon Stations. This line, which terminated at South Hills Village, was opened on May 22, 1987.
The entire Stage One project, which linked commuters in Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park, Mount Lebanon, Dormont and Beechview to downtown Pittsburgh on a completely modernized light rail system was completed at a total cost of $522 million.
From 1984 through 1993, refurbished mid-20th Century PCC trolley cars were used on the Shannon-Drake, or Overbrook line, which traced the route of the 19th century Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad line south along Route 51 and Route 88 to Castle Shannon, and from 1984 through 2002 on the southernmost (Shannon-Library) route from Washington Junction to Library in South Park.
After receiving further federal funding, the Port Authority began Stage Two of the Pittsburgh Light Rail project. This included the upgrading of the Overbrook, Drake and Library lines to fully double-tracked LRT routes. Both lines were completely rebuilt, along with the replacement of three century-old bridges along the Route 51 corridor and new handicapped-accessible loading platforms. Both lines were re-opened in June of 2004. The four-year reconstruction project cost $386 million and marked the completion of the entire southern light rail redevelopment plan.
For residents of the South Hills, the modern system was a commuter's dream. Park 'n Ride stations, exclusive right-of-ways and fast commute times provided a convenience that dramatically improved the transit conditions to and from downtown Pittsburgh. The system also provides financial benefits to the city, bringing substantial commerce and consumer spending totaling billions of dollars each year.
Stage Three of Pittsburgh Light Rail redevelopment project began in 2004, with plans for a link to the North Shore. The new spur line extends from the Gateway Station, through twin-bore tunnels under the Allegheny River, to elevated platforms on the North Shore. The North Side Station serves PNC Park, the Warhol Museum, Allegheny Center and several office buildings. The Allegheny Station serves Heinz Field, the Carnegie Science Center, the National Aviary, the Community College of Allegheny County and the Rivers Casino.
Construction on the North Shore Connector began in October 2006. The first bore tunnel bore was completed on July 10, 2008 and the second in early 2009. The new line began operation on March 25, 2012. The cost of the Stage Three project was $523 million, bringing the total cost of the Pittsburgh Light Rail system to $1.5 billion, mostly funded with federal grants.
For three decades, the modernized Pittsburgh Light Rail system has been one of the city's transportation jewels. For commuters and visitors to the downtown area, with the cost of fuel rising and additional parking fees, the "T" continues to grow in popularity. Future plans for further extensions include a line running east to the Oakland area and another running west to the Pittsburgh International Airport.
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