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Downtown workers face traffic with courage

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Construction-related traffic jams and reports on traffic tie-ups that haven’t occurred hit Grand Concourse proprietor Rick McMaster where it hurts the most — in the cash register.

"I lived through the renovation of the Smithfield Street Bridge, and it was the longest two years of my life, and I can tell you why: Not because construction is so terrible, not because people couldn’t get to the restaurant, but because the media scared the daylights out of them,’’ an exasperated McMaster said.

 
    Joe's hot tips

If you normally take the 10th Street Bypass or Fort Duquesne Boulevard to the Fort Pitt Bridge outbound, use the Grant Street entrance to avoid the lines at the Liberty Avenue and Stanwix Street on-ramps.

 
 

 

So he’s preparing for the next big traffic story, the coming reconstruction of the Fort Duquesne-Fort Pitt Bridge ramps, by training his crew at the Station Square restaurant to calm worried patrons.

They will dispense advice on alternate routes to callers and gently let them know that the work is a necessary and temporary inconvenience, not a recurring nightmare.

"You have no idea how many guests come to this restaurant from Ohio and West Virginia. It’s a very important issue for people and they really do sort of panic,’’ McMaster said. "If you have a doctor’s appointment, you have to go. But if you’re going to dinner, you can always change plans."

You may not have to go to dinner, but you must get to work. Like the Grand Concourse, large employers, including Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Mellon and PNC banks, are sharing alternate-route information with their workers and patrons through newsletters, Internet sites, e-mail messages and bulletin boards.

Some employers already have flextime programs, and a few are adding those options in anticipation of traffic problems.

Most, however, are waiting to see how bad the traffic jam really is after construction starts Thursday.

The wait-and-see approach is ably represented by Mark Miner, a spokesman for Buchanan Ingersoll, who said the Downtown law firm with 450 employees was anticipating no problems and was, therefore, taking no special steps.

"Problem. What problem?" Miner said with a chuckle. "Just be here."

Practical traffic planning and communication efforts boosted by PennDOT, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Convention and Visitors Bureau have had a calming effect on those who have paid attention.

"I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the preparation that has gone into this and the level of cooperation between agencies, public and private,’’ said Tim Sessions of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a regional planning agency. "This has been the most well-thought-out, systematically executed work project. A lot of people are working to make sure things go as easily as possible."

The Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership, for example, is launching a Stick Around Downtown program that will encourage business owners to come up with incentives, such as discounts after 5 p.m., to keep workers and shoppers busy until the worst of the evening rush hour has passed.

The partnership will encourage alternatives to cars and send weekly fax reports to its 6,000 constituents with new detour and construction information. Its Web site will offer a link to PennDOT’s Internet site, www.penndotpgh.com. Over the next few years, as construction progresses, you can expect to see an advertising campaign pushing the message that Pittsburgh is open for business and that "you can get there’’ with a little planning.

"We’re not looking at this through rose-colored glasses,’’ said Harry Finnigan, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "We know we’re in for a challenge, but we know if we mobilize the Downtown community and really establish working relationships with partners like PennDOT, the Port Authority and the Chamber [of Commerce], we can mitigate the negative disruptions."

The Port Authority will launch its own public relations campaign later this month to persuade people to take the bus and the T or double up in their cars with a friend. "The idea is to lessen the traffic so the buses can move faster,’’ spokeswoman Judi McNeil said.

The Chamber of Commerce has sponsored information seminars on the construction project for interested business people and has mailed hundreds of maps showing alternate routes to its members and community leaders.

U.S. government employee Mary Ann Sedlacek attended a 90-minute chamber presentation on the construction detours and said she was stunned by the lack of applause when it was over.

"No one clapped. I thought, whoa, how many people believe you can get there from here?’’ Sedlacek said. "I think people are just holding their breath."

The visitors bureau, which estimates that the Pittsburgh region attracts 10,000 visitors a day, is sending an overview of the construction project, complete with detour maps, to hotels, restaurants and other businesses that serve tourists.

PNC will make its 8,000 Pittsburgh employees aware of alternatives to their cars -- public transit, vanpools, carpools -- and point them to existing flexible work options, including flextime, working from home, compressed work weeks, reduced schedules and job sharing, spokesman Patrick McMahon said.

Mellon will make sure its 5,000 Downtown workers have route maps in addition to traffic alerts placed in its employee newsletters.

"It will be business as usual. Mellon comprises professionals. People know how to adjust their schedules,’’ Mellon spokesman Ron Grundel said.

Aerial Communications, a wireless telephone company with offices at the Pittsburgh Technology Center on Second Avenue, has decided to give the 50 employees who work there an hour’s leeway. Those scheduled to report at 8 a.m. can arrive by 9 a.m. if they are willing to leave an hour later.

Traffic problems may present the company with an opportunity, too. Aerial’s engineers are studying the projected traffic patterns to make sure their system can handle more calls from commuters trapped in rush hour.

"If you’re going to be waiting in traffic, you’d better get a phone,’’ said Patty Attanaucci, head of Aerial’s local marketing effort.

The city’s cab drivers will be sweating it out in the same traffic as the rest of Pittsburgh. But a miserable traffic jam can present them with an unexpected opportunity, too.

"It will take a bit longer, and maybe there will be bigger cab fares,’’ said Mavis Baumann, general manager of the People’s Cab Co. "The meter clicks as you sit in traffic."

Even the best planning has left some businesses nervous about the potential for traffic congestion.

Free Markets Online, a young company that organizes and holds online auctions for industrial goods, employs consultants who travel frequently to and from the airport. Also, the 180-employee company just moved into new Downtown office space and wants to show it off.

"We bring clients in from out of town -- Connecticut, Michigan and out West,’’ Free Markets controller Gary Doyle said. "I would hate their first impression to be a huge traffic jam."

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is also getting into the act. To avoid traffic jamming on a theater night, a free bus will make the rounds to four parking garages outside the Downtown cultural district to pick up patrons and return them to the theater when the event is over.

The drop-off and pickup sites are the Liberty-Smithfield Garage (formerly Gimbels Garage) at the Smithfield Street entrance; the Mellon Square Garage at Smithfield and Oliver Avenue; the Oliver Avenue Garage at the Fifth Avenue entrance; and the Stanwix Street Garage at Max & Erma’s Restaurant.

The trust hopes the shuttle stops will ease the parking crunch in the heart of the district, some of which is being eroded by construction of the O’Reilly Theater, and will help some the flow when people are on their way to Pirates games.

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