The "T" Light Rail Transit System
The New Era In Mass Transit
In the early 1980s, the City of Pittsburgh underwent many changes. While The landmark buildings Mellon Tower, Oxford Centre and PPG Plaza rose skywards, underneath the surface work was underway that would dramatically change the course of mass transit in the Golden Triangle.
Downtown streets were cleared were cleared of the cumbersome streetcar tracks that for so many years criss-crossed the urban landscape. The steel rails did not disappear completely, they just moved underground.
Work had begun on the Port Authority's new Pittsburgh Light Rail system, or "T" as it is commonly known. The modern system ushered in a new era in mass transit here in Pittsburgh.
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 by way of a tunnel that travels beneath the Allegheny River.
The modern Pittsburgh Light Rail system is the successor to the Pittsburgh Railways trolley system. Chartered in 1902, by 1949 the Pittsburgh streetcar fleet was second only in size to that of the City of Chicago.
Only a decade later, many of the old routes were being replaced with buses. By the early 1970s, only a handful of streetcar routes were still in operation. The majority of these used the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, just south of the Monongahela River, to service the South Hills suburbs.
The Westinghouse Transit Expressway
In the 1960s, the Port Authority of Allegheny County took control of Pittsburgh Railways. The Authority drew up plans scrap the entire rail network in favor of busways and a revolutionary 92-mile automated guideway transit system.
Developed by engineers at Westinghouse Electric, the Westinghouse Transit Expressway, or "Skybus" as it was commonly called, was envisioned 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 Skybus system was abandoned in favor of a network of busways and, in downtown Pittsburgh, a system of dedicated bus lanes.
The Southern Rail Network Is Saved
Opposition to this plan was strong in the southern suburbs, where rail traffic had been in place for over a century. Community and civic leaders favored saving the last of the existing electric rail routes rather than increased bus service.
Proposals were put forth for an upgrade of the southern rail network to a modern light-rail transit system that would use the remaining streetcar right-of-ways to the south and incorporate a subway system in downtown Pittsburgh.
After much debate, in the end, the light-rail option was adopted for the southern suburbs, along with a busway to accomodate existing bus routes. The suburbs to the east of Pittsburgh would see further development of busway systems as originally planned.
The Modern Light-Rail System
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 the renovated Overbrook (Shannon-Drake) route. It used the route of the 19th century Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad, and later the Pittsburgh Railways right-of-way south along Route 51 and Route 88 from the South Hills Junction through Castle Shannon to South Hills Village. This first light rail route was completed and began operation on April 15, 1984.
From 1984 to 1993, PCC trolley cars, upgraded for light rail use, continued to run along the Overbrook line. The vintage PCC cars were in use for another decade on the southernmost (Shannon-Library) route from Washington Junction to Library in South Park. In 2002, the last of the vintage cars were retired.
In downtown Pittsburgh, construction of the subway portion of the light rail system was underway. For most Pittsburghers, the subway dig was 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.
After being converted to handle train traffic, the tunnel was renamed the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Extension Railroad Tunnel. Over 150 years old at the time of the subway dig, the landmark tunnel was upgraded again and incorporated into Pittsburgh's light rail 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. This seldom used spur line runs directly 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 Brown Line
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 modern-day throwback to the old streetcar 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.
The Beechview Line
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 completely rebuilt and the entire length of 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.
Reconstructing The Overbrook Line
In 1993, service along the Overbrook line was discontinued. The aging high bridges along the line were deemed structurally deficient. Nearly a decade passed before the Port Authority began the final phase of the southern light rail project.
In 2000, 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. The three century-old bridges along the Route 51 corridor were replaced and new handicapped-accessible loading platforms were installed. The Overbrook and Library routes 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.
A Southern Commuter's Dream
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 new light rail system also provides financial benefits to the City of Pittsburgh, bringing substantial commerce and consumer spending totaling billions of dollars each year.
The North Shore Connector
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.
Pittsburgh's Transportation Jewel
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.
In 2014, as part of the Port Authority of Allegheny County's 50th Anniversary celebration, a few of the modern light-rail cars were painted to resemble the vintage PCC cars that for several decades rode the rails of Pittsburgh's streetcar network.
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