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Route 28 redesign relies on railroad

By Jim Ritchie
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. is negotiating with PennDOT to provide land for widening Route 28 in Pittsburgh, which could speed commute times and possibly spare the vacant St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church.

Only a sidewalk separates St. Nicholas — the nation’s first Croatian Catholic church — from the busy highway, which PennDOT plans to rebuild from Millvale to the North Side in 2008. The project, previously estimated to cost up to $200 million, would add shoulders to the narrow highway and eliminate traffic signals at the 31st and 40th Street bridges that cause traffic tie-ups.

“It’s bits and pieces of other designs,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT’s assistant district executive for design. “We’re trying to please all of the stakeholders, and we think this alignment will please most of the traveling public, property owners and community groups.”

PennDOT would not divulge more details of its plan, but said it would reveal the design this summer, likely in July.

“We don’t want to go out to the public until we know what the railroad says,” Moon-Sirianni said. “Once we hear back from the railroad, we’ll have a better sense of where we’re going.”

Railway spokeswoman Susan Terpay declined to discuss details of the proposal because it involved a possible real estate transaction. “We continue to have ongoing negotiations with them, and we are reviewing the first draft of their proposed plans,” she said.

There’s just one hitch that has former St. Nicholas parishioners concerned: The project would close the church’s driveway from Route 28 and, so far, the new design does not provide for a replacement.

Members of the Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, which wants to preserve and reopen the church, lobbied PennDOT a week ago to build a new access road. They fear the absence of a new road in the design means PennDOT might use the church property, especially if talks with the railroad fall through.

“It’s essential that the access road go in,” said Robert Sladack, of Reserve, who belongs to the group. “On the more recent preliminary design, it was not listed.”

PennDOT has not ruled out building the access road, which could be added in later versions of the design, said Moon-Sirianni.

“Nothing’s been decided,” she said. “Everything is still on the table.”

Rebuilding Route 28, which is used by about 60,000 drivers each day, became an engineering nightmare in the last several years. Most problems are linked to the highway’s narrow path in the city. Numerous buildings, including the church and the Millvale Industrial Park, line one side of Route 28, while the railroad tracks border the other side. Behind the row of buildings is a steep hillside climbing up to Troy Hill.

In order for the new Route 28 to carry high-speed traffic through the city the way the Parkways North and East do, PennDOT must build shoulders on both sides to improve safety. Adding the shoulders likely would increase speed limits to 50-55 mph, from 35-40 mph.

PennDOT’s initial plan called for leveling the church to make enough room for a faster, four-lane highway. Churchgoers and preservationist groups objected and PennDOT decided to find alternatives.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh closed the church in December and moved the parish to a Millvale church, but formed a group to research other possible uses, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, a diocesan spokesman. The diocese advanced $50,000 to St. Nicholas parish to repair a broken boiler so it could heat the empty building during the winter and avoid damage such as frozen pipes.

PennDOT’s last round of proposals included tall retaining walls along the highway. Groups such as the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Riverlife Task Force objected, and the transportation department again chose to find a new plan.

“We were concerned, as was Riverlife, about an 80-foot retaining wall,” said Cathy McCollom, the foundation’s chief programs officer.

Until now, PennDOT and the railroad were unable to agree on a plan that would use railway property. That changed after the proposal of a state law that would have allowed Allegheny County government to take railroad property through eminent domain.

“In the course of introducing the legislation, I found it was not necessary to push the movement of the bill because Norfolk Southern became amenable to working with PennDOT,” said state Rep. Don Walko, a North Side Democrat. “Suddenly, things just seemed to open up.”

Jim Ritchie can be reached at or (412) 320-7933.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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