The Fort Pitt Tunnels
The Fort Pitt Tunnels and the accompanying Fort Pitt Bridge are a key part of the traffic infrastructure linking the city of Pittsburgh with the growing suburbs to the south. They are a vital link in the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, connecting the Parkways East and West, and making Pittsburgh a stop along the U.S. Interstate highway system.
Construction of the tunnels, bridge and highways were keystones in the landmark transportation upgrades initiated in the 1950s, part of Pittsburgh's Renaissance I. These advancements formed the cornerstone in the development of the greater metropolitan area. The impacts of the Fort Pitt Tunnels/Bridge rival those of the Liberty Tunnels/Bridge in the 1920s.
History of the Fort Pitt Tunnels
Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge
The idea of building another tunnel through Mount Washington began in 1924 and became a hot topic in the 1930s, when the South Hills was undergoing rapid development and population increases. The road network had dramatically improved with the construction of Saw Mill Run Boulevard and Banksville Road, but getting all of that traffic around Mount Washington caused major traffic tie-ups.
Designers proposed building twin tubes, 3,750 in length, through Mount Washington and an accompanying bridge, slightly upriver from the existing Point Bridge, to link the tunnel with Water Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Called the Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge, the $8 million project was postponed due to lack of available funding and the onset of World War II.
Before The Tunnels
Prior to 1950, the Banksville Traffic Circle (shown above in 1948) was the connecting link for Saw Mill Run Boulevard, Banksville Road and Woodville Avenue, a two lane roadway which was the only route to the West End. Getting from this point to downtown Pittsburgh was still a difficult travel, either south to the Liberty Tunnels or north along Woodville Avenue to the West End Circle. The circle would be replaced in the early-1950s.
The dotted line on the photo above shows the path of the tunnels from the southern portal to the northern portal and downtown Pittsburgh. Also shown is the modern interchange constructed to link Saw Mill Run Boulevard, the West End Bypass, the Parkway West, Banksville Road and Woodville Avenue.
The First In The World
In February 1956 the Fort Pitt Tunnel Commission announced that boring of the tunnel would begin preferably in the fall of that year. The two tubes would comprise four lanes, two in each direction, and would be the first tunnel in the world in which portal traffic at one end moves over two different levels. The northern portals are vertically offset to allow traffic to mesh with the double-deck construction of the accompanying Fort Pitt Bridge.
Inbound traffic crosses the bridge on the upper deck. Outbound traffic uses the lower bridge deck and passes into the tunnel portal approximately forty feet lower in elevation. The outbound bore gradually rises to meet the elevation of its neighbor so that the southern portals are equal in elevation.
The tunnel was originally slated to be operated on a toll basis, the only toll tunnel in the state outside the Pennsylvania Turnpike system. Plans called for eleven traffic lanes leading to ten tool booths at the south end of the tunnels. To help eliminate congestion at the gates, the state would issue monthly stickers to regular users. Fortunately, this provision was dropped.
Fort Pitt Tunnel Construction (1957-1959)
The ground-breaking ceremony was held April 17, 1957, and the boring of the tunnels began August 28 and was completed the following May. Moving forward at nearly forty-six feet per day, the excavations removed nearly 7000 railroad carloads of rock and debris, which was used to fill a nearby valley along Banksville Road.
The roadway surface was done with paving bricks, which gave off a soft, steady humming sound while passing through the tunnels. Bright reflective tiles lined the walls and a dropped ceiling, which dramatically increased illumination.
An antenna that ran the length of each shaft, powerful enough to pick up both AM and FM radio, something new at the time for Pittsburgh motorists. Four huge blowers at each end keep the tubes clear of exhaust fumes. Each tube was equipped with a walkway to the right, but these were for use by tunnel personnel only.
A control room at the southern portal has television screens to monitor traffic and a large panel with dials and switches that operate the various electronic functions. The use of television to monitor tunnel traffic was also believed to be a world first. The construction project took nearly two years and cost $17 million.
The tunnels were formally opened on September 1, 1960 with pomp and ceremony. Governor David Lawrence, former Mayor of Pittsburgh, gave a brief dedication speech at the tunnels south portal. The governor said, "Only a year ago, we gathered to open the new Fort Pitt Bridge. I said at that time that the bridge was a significant step forward in Pittsburgh's redevelopment."
I believe we can say the same for the tunnel," he added, "and since I am well acquainted with the West End traffic situation, I think this tunnel may be even more beneficial as a traffic facility."
Mayor Joseph M. Barr echoed the Governor's sentiments when he said "we can predict with certainty that the convenience afforded by the Fort Pitt TUnnel will in the years ahead spur new developments to the west and southwest of Downtown Pittsburgh."
After their speeches, the Governor and Mayor got into an antique car and led a procession of vintage vehicles through the tunnels and over the bridge to downtown, followed by a long line of cars and trucks that stretched far to the west up Greentree Hill, and a like distance eastward across the Fort Pitt Bridge. It was 11am when traffic began to move and the tunnels were officially operational.
The Fort Pitt Bridge and tunnels were the new gateway to the City of Pittsburgh, one of the cornerstones of a modernization effort proposed by Robert Moses in 1939, known as the "Moses Plan". It was strongly hoped that this addition to the transportation network would, in addition to spurring development, bring much needed relief to the beleaguered South Hills motorist, who for years had languished in daily traffic jams during the morning and evening rush.
Of the highway tunnels in Allegheny County, the Fort Pitt Tunnels (3,614 feet) are third in length, behind the nearby Liberty Tunnels (5,889 feet) and the Squirrel Hill Tunnels (4,225 feet). When the tunnel opened in 1960, the average usage was 40,000 vehicles per day. By 2018, that number had risen 150,000.
Out Of Control Trucks
The inbound approach to the Fort Pitt Tunnels is situated at the bottom of Greentree Hill, a 1.6 mile-long downhill stretch of highway with a 6% grade. Signs are posted notifying truck drivers of the steep grade and warning them to downshift and get in the right lane. These measures have prevented most, but not all of the accidents at the southern portals of the tunnels.
Collisions between trucks and automobiles, some fiery and many tragic, have plagued the tunnels since they opened in 1960. Many times the 18-wheelers have lost their brakes heading down the hill, and for one reason or another miss the truck ramp and continue speeding out-of-control towards the tunnel entrance. This has led to collisions at the entrance, inside the tunnels, on the bridge and in downtown Pittsburgh at the end of the bridge ramps.
Another problem with trucks that once plagued the tunnels were rigs that exceeded the height limit and got wedged between the roadway and the tunnel ceiling. The offending vehicles had their tires lowered and were towed out of the way of traffic, but not before causing interminable delays for motorists.
Tunnel Reconstruction (1993-2003)
The Fort Pitt Tunnels underwent a major rehabilitation during the eleven-year period between 1993 and 2003. The project began in 1993/1994 with a $3.8 million replacement of the granite and metal facades at the north and south portals.
Then in 2002-2003, the tunnels themselves received a comprehensive overhaul along with the Fort Pitt Bridge. In 2002 work was done on the outbound tube, and in 2003 the inbound side. Work included a new roadbed, drainage, electrical systems, lighting and replacement of the wall tiles. The dropped tile ceiling was removed, exposing the arched concrete ceiling above.When the entire decade-long project was completed in August 2003, the Fort Pitt Tunnels and Bridge were in a condition to serve the City of Pittsburgh for many years to come.
Tunnel Expansion Proposal (2002)
One ambitious plan that was emerged during the reconstruction project was an expansion of the tunnel. Two more tubes would be bored through Mount Washington, one on either side of the existing tunnels. The addition of two inbound and outbound lanes would help alleviate the nagging rush hour congestion.
This proposal is still being kicked around as part of a $1.6 billion modernization plan. It is projected that traffic on Greentree Hill will increase 40% by 2025 and something must by done to prepare for that eventuality. We will have to wait and see what happens. Surely a solution must be found somewhere to the impending monster traffic tie-ups expected in the next decade.
The Best Way To Enter An American City
Famous as the "best way to enter an American city," motorists traveling along Interstate 279 are given no visual clues, aside from traffic signs, regarding their proximity to downtown Pittsburgh as they enter the Fort Pitt Tunnels. When they emerge on the other side, the Golden Triangle suddenly bursts into view framed by the cross-bracing and golden arches of the Fort Pitt Bridge.
The Fort Pitt Tunnels From The Air - 2019
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