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"The Best Way to enter an American City"

The Fort Pitt Tunnel has been described as "the best way to enter an American city" which in this case happens to be Pittsburgh. When driving into Pittsburgh from the west, say from Greater Pittsburgh International Airport or I-79, you'll probably take the Parkway West. The Parkway West is a multiplex route which includes US Highway 22 (William Penn Highway), US Highway 30 (Lincoln Highway), and Interstate 279.

The western entrance to the Fort Pitt Tunnel is visible from a few hundred yards but there is no clue (to the unintiated) that you are less than a mile from downtown Pittsburgh. When you emerge from the other end, in less than a minute, the panorama of Pittsburgh immediatly bursts into view. As you leave the tunnel you're soon 50 feet above the Mon crossing the Fort Pitt Bridge. Across the river to your left is the Golden Triangle of Point State Park where the confluence of the Monongahela River and the Allegheny River form the headwaters of the Ohio River. Beyond the point is Heinz Field, home of the Steelers and PNC Park where the Pirates play.

To your right is downtown Pittsburgh with the US Steel Tower, PPG Place, and the Gulf Building among the many skyscrapers filling the skyline. The outbound lanes of the tunnel are now beneath you on the lower deck of the Fort Pitt Bridge. The outbound motorists can see the hill of Mt. Washington which they will soon be passing underneath. Mount Washington in Pittsburgh is only a few hundred feet high but very steep.

History

The Fort Pitt Tunnel was first opened to traffic in 1960. It was the final step in the completion of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway. The parkway extends about 25 miles from the airport in the west, through Pittsburgh and onto Monroeville in the east. The Penn-Lincoln Parkway was originally conceived as the Pitt Parkway in 1939 by Robert Moses. This was only a nine or ten mile stretch to the east. The Parkway West was opened in 1951. Traffic would have to follow the West-End Bypass until the tunnel was completed. Plans for a toll tunnel through Mount Washington were announced in 1953. Contracts for the design were awarded in 1954 and construction on the tunnels began in 1957.

Groundbreaking was held on April 17, 1957 and drilling began on August 28, 1957. The estimated cost of the tunnel project was $17 million. On March 31, 1958 the two tunnels were bored through from one end to the other. As construction continued, the Fort Pitt Bridge was being erected and was opened to traffic on June 19, 1959. It connected downtown (northside) to Carson St. (southside). Although the Parkway West had been opened since the mid 1950s, traffic was using the West End Bypass until the tunnel was opened.

Opening Day

The Fort Pitt Tunnels opened on September 1, 1960. Intended to be a toll facility, on opening day it was announced that one of the better pieces of news was that the tunnel would be toll free. One could now drive non-stop through Pittsburgh, as long as there were no traffic jams.

The 3614 feet long tunnels carry over 100,000 vehicles per day. There is an average of 28 accidents per day but most of them are minor fender benders. There are seven cross-passages between the tunnels, one about every 500 ft., in case people have to escape from one side to another. In case of fire there are 70 fire extinguishers in the tunnels, including the cross-passages.

Renovations & Updates

In October 1996 PennDOT began the Penn-Lincoln Parkway Service Patrol. One of the three sections of the service patrol includes the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Specially equipped tow trucks with specially trained operators patrol the parkway during peak hours. Their mission is to clear the highway quickly since one blocked lane can back up traffic in a matter of minutes. In addition to traffic accidents, they assist motorists whose vehicles have flat tires, empty fuel tanks or towing if "the damn thing won't run." It used to take PSP an average of 16.5 minutes to respond to an incident. The service patrol averages 8.7 minutes, saving approximatly $6 million.

Radio repeaters were installed in through the tunnel in 1999. Motorists could now listen to AM & FM signals while in the tunnels. The system was developed by Carnegie Mellon University. Good luck if you have satellite radio.

The Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel rehab which was originally scheduled to begin in 1993, didn't get started until 1997 due to fiscal problems. The project would result in daily traffic delays. The replacement of the granite façade at the tunnel entrance was the first thing done. In 1998 the access ramps from Carson St. were replaced. A year later an over-height truck warning system was installed at the western portal of the tunnel.

Trucks have become wedged in the 13'-6" high tunnel many times over the years. On January 11th, 2001 at 7 a.m., the brakes on an inbound tractor-trailer locked up. A short time later another truck became disabled at the eastern end of the parkway in the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. The truck in the Fort Pitt Tunnel was towed out by 8:45 a.m. but by then traffic coming into the city was backed up for miles. The tunnel clearance has since been raised to 14'-0" with the renovations done in 2002 & 2003.

In April 2002 the outbound lanes of the tunnel and the Fort Pitt Bridge were closed. The bridge deck was replaced and numerous revisions and uppdates were done to the tunnel. The work was completed on July 31st, a month ahead of schedule. The inbound lanes were done in 2003. They were opened on August 16, 2003, despite a fire that broke out on May 16th causing moderate damage to construction equipment and work being done. Some of the improvements include a computer operated logic controller using 24 fiber optic cables running the length of the tunnels. The system monitors microwave traffic detectors, tunnel ventilation, electrical & lighting systems, carbon monoxide levels, and temperature. There is a closed-circuit TV system linked to a PennDOT control center and a system to detect over-height trucks approaching the tunnel. There is also a fire alarm and intercom system and seismic detection equipment.

Although the tunnel is nearly state of the art, water was discovered leaking into the western end of the tunnel in January 2004.

Sources:

Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, PA (http://pghbridges.com)
Pennsylvania Highways: Interstate 279 (http://www.pahighways.com)

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