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Fort Pitt delays mark Day 1

Confusion evident despite light traffic

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Opening day for the five-month Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel remodeling project brought confusion and delays, although Pittsburgh traffic was lighter than usual, even for a Saturday.

But if yesterday was an indication of things to come, look out tomorrow.

Surrounded by a sea of signs, a motorist pauses yesterday on Fort Pitt Boulevard before deciding which way to turn. A left turn will put him on the Fort Duquesne Bridge; a right turn will put him on Commonwealth Place. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

We Will Survive:
A special section on the Fort Pitt Birdge and Tunnel project.

Not only will 70,000 vehicles that travel the outbound bridge-tunnel be detoured to already crowded alternate routes where Interstate 279 traffic is getting priority, but the Pirates are playing their home opener at PNC Park starting at 1:35 p.m. It is likely the game will end during the height of the afternoon rush hours, when almost everyone will be trying to find a way out of town -- for the first time and at the same time.

"Hectic" is what Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Traffic Engineer Vic DeFazio expects of the exodus if motorists haven't studied the detours and the virtual avalanche of information provided for months leading up to the Fort Pitt Bridge project.

The post-game situation is expected to create such turmoil that PennDOT, at the request of the Pirates, will open up the Western Avenue exit to the West End Bridge for one hour after the game to help fans get out of North Shore parking lots. The Western Avenue exit is otherwise closed to enable two lanes of traffic from Route 28, I-279 South and Downtown to go to the West End Bridge or Ohio River Boulevard without having to stop for signals.

When traffic pours out of Western Avenue, traffic using the I-279 South detour will have to be halted.

"People should not expect rush hours to be free of delays," DeFazio said. "People are backed up every day getting onto the Fort Pitt Bridge."

PennDOT closed the outbound bridge and tunnel at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, yanking the linchpin for the I-279/I-376 connection to and through the city. The inbound Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel aren't affected -- not until next year.

Tours of the detours yesterday showed either many people were ill prepared or else overwhelmed by so many signs, often popping up in quick succession.

Click to larger image of detour options, or visit PennDot's interactive version at epenndot.com.

Cars were signaling to go one way and then going another way; traveling in the wrong lanes, then cutting in line or swerving at the last minute; and getting lost altogether after having made a wrong turn or taken the wrong detour.

As of late yesterday, workers had already removed half of the lights in the outbound tunnel, started removing ceramic tiles, busted up and trucked away part of the concrete barriers and milled off asphalt on the lower deck of the bridge.

PennDOT engineers, consultants and contractors gathered for a special 90-minute meeting on the North Side to assess the initial traffic impacts and discuss what extra signs and steps are needed to make traffic as painless as possible.

"We still have signs to cover and things to tweak," DeFazio said, including temporary paving and line-painting expected to be finished today, such as a temporary new entry to the Parkway West from Route 51 in the Banksville area.

He encouraged drivers who have not prepared for the Fort Pitt project to do so in a hurry. While PennDOT has designated three main detours that use either the West End Bridge or Liberty Bridge, 13 secondary detours have been set up affecting the West End, North Side, Downtown, Mount Washington, south end of the Liberty Tunnels, Station Square area and Route 51 between West Liberty Avenue and the Corliss Tunnel.

"Some people are going to have trouble, but there's not a whole lot more that we can do for them," DeFazio said.

Project officials believe the biggest challenge will be moving traffic out of Downtown on weekday afternoons, even without the Pirates playing occasional afternoon games. As many as 50 off-duty police will be helping out.

Downtown traffic is already complicated by the fact that Fort Pitt Boulevard eastbound and the 10th Street Bypass have been closed; the 16th Street Bridge is to be closed for repairs after Memorial Day.

Here are a few traffic restrictions motorists may not have figured on:

Only one of the four lanes of the inbound Fort Duquesne Bridge is open. All traffic is required to exit onto Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

* The Forbes and Sixth Avenue ramps to the outbound Liberty Bridge are closed. Motorists are detoured via a loop sending them to Ross Street, First Avenue past the PNC Firstside building and Grant Street to the Boulevard of the Allies entry ramp to the Liberty Bridge.

The Boulevard of the Allies and Crosstown Boulevard (I-579) ramps to the outbound Liberty Bridge funnel into one lane, a restriction that added about 10 minutes to trips at times yesterday.

While the Downtown side of the Liberty Bridge posed one of the biggest bottlenecks, DeFazio said three lanes of the Liberty Bridge will be opened in the outbound direction, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays, in order to establish a free-flowing lane approaching the bridge from Grant Street.

He said traffic appeared to be lighter yesterday than a typical Saturday, "but that's usually the case when we close something big."

Trumbull Corp. was awarded an $84.2 million contract to repair and improve the main decks of the Fort Pitt Bridge and the inbound-outbound Fort Pitt Tunnel over the next two construction seasons.

PennDOT is dangling a lucrative incentive for the work to be finished by Aug. 31 -- a $100,000-a-day bonus, up to a maximum of $1.5 million each year. On the other end, if Trumbull doesn't finish on schedule, the West Mifflin firm will have to pay a $100,000-a-day penalty.

PennDOT's Web site is www.epenndot.com. It also operates a 24-hour, toll-free hotline at (877) 450-4279.

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