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Riverlife Task Force proposes tunnel to untangle Route 28

By Joe Grata,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2003

A city group has offered a new engineering concept to untangle the traffic mess on a stretch of Route 28 where the 31st Street Bridge and Rialto Street intersect it.

The design would accommodate local traffic on a landscaped deck at the existing level of Route 28 and relocate mainline traffic into a four-lane tunnel beneath it and next to railroad tracks at the foot of Troy Hill.

Thru traffic would move nonstop on Route 28 after reconstruction of its last two miles between Millvale and the East Ohio Street/Interstate 279 interchange on the North Side.

More importantly, the plan would eliminate thousands of feet of retaining walls up to 60 feet high that other alternatives call for and preserve the wooded hillside along the highway, says the Riverlife Task Force, a group dedicated to enhancing the river corridors of Pittsburgh.

The group hired a national consulting firm, Vollmer Associates, known for creating environmentally friendly transportation projects, to create the alternative to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation plans for rebuilding the stretch of Route 28.

Edward Patton, manager of engineering services for Vollmer’s regional office in Pittsburgh, said the design at the 31st Street Bridge establishes the pattern for the rest of the project — a boulevard concept that residents and preservationists favored at a public meeting last month.

Separately, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation is investigating the acquisition of air rights over two unused tracks of four that Norfolk Southern Railway owns. The tracks abut Route 28, sitting below a retaining wall that helps create the shelf of land for the highway. Owning air rights would allow engineers to consider building part of Route 28 over the railroad property, toward the Allegheny riverfront.

Both the Riverlife Task Force and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation plans for Route 28 would save historic St. Nicholas Church.

“I’m interested in seeing what [the Riverlife Task Force] plan looks like,” PennDOT District 11 Executive Ray Hack said. “At this stage of the planning process, we’re open to ideas. This is the time for anyone with suggestions.”

PennDOT engineers are to provide Vollmer Associates with information on geology, traffic volumes, elevations and other technical matters so the firm can continue to advance and refine its concept.

“The Riverlife Task Force is focusing on the potential impact of PennDOT’s project on the green hillsides and the communities that will be affected,” said Ted McConnell, the task force’s legal counsel. “We’re looking for a design that’s sensitive to the setting.”

Lisa Schroeder, director of the task force, said although Route 28 sits some distance back from the Allegheny River, the group became interested in PennDOT’s highway plans “because the hillside helps define the river corridor and is part of the city’s unique topography.”

This isn’t the first time the 3-year-old Riverlife Task Force has become involved with PennDOT. It persuaded the state to develop and install see-through guardrails on the Fort Pitt Bridge instead of 42-inch-high solid concrete barriers, thereby preserving views of the city and three rivers.

PennDOT’s newest options for Route 28 at the 31st Street Bridge would realign Rialto Street to create a four-way intersection, extensively altering the hillside, while Vollmer’s concept would keep Rialto in place.

PennDOT has also proposed elevating the southbound lanes of Route 28 and cutting them into the hillside. Vollmer would place the mainline traffic in the underpass-like tunnel, only minimally disturbing the hillside.

The speed limit would probably be 40 mph under both PennDOT’s and the Riverlife Task Force’s boulevard concepts, but Route 28’s capacity and traffic flow would be substantially improved.

Estimated cost of the PennDOT project is $160 million to $200 million, depending on the alternative chosen, but the timetable does not call for work to begin before 2008.

Joe Grata can be reached at or 412-263-1985.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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