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The Many Failed Plans of Pittsburgh's Wabash Bridge and Tunnel

The December 27, 2004 opening of the Wabash Tunnel ended over 70 years of proposals and speculation over the 100-plus-year-old facility.  The tunnel, now a reversible roadway that is an alternative route for rush hour traffic, saw many failed plans during the 20th Century.  These plans included options for mass transit, converted and new bridges for vehicles, and other forms of transportation.
 
The Wabash Tunnel South Portal one day before its opening (Jeff Kitsko - December 2004)
Brief History:
Constructed between 1902-04, the Wabash Bridge and Tunnel was planned and financed by rail mogul - Jay Gould.  Gould began his "Battle of the Wabash" with the established railroads of the city in 1890.  He would finally emerge victorious, but during that struggle, Gould would see many setbacks that would eventually result in the railroad's bankruptcy in 1908.  On October 19, 1903, when the two ends of the bridge were to be joined over the Monongahela River, the 109-foot bridge collapsed, killing ten men.  Construction would resume four days later (1); however, the project continued to be hampered by strikes, riots, landslides, and floods. (2)  The railway - named the Wabash-Pittsburg Terminal Railroad - began operations in July 1904 but would only last for four years.
 
The former Wabash line and properties were purchased by the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad in 1917.  However, disasters would continue to wreak havoc on the new owners.  In November 1925, a landslide blocked the tunnel's north portal causing major damage to the trestle that connected the tunnel to the bridge.  The automobile era would see the end of passenger service to the line in 1931.  Freight service would continue until 1946 when a series of fires would damage and destroy the downtown terminal and many parts of the rail yard.  The bridge was demolished two years later sending much of the steel upriver for the construction of the Dravosburg Bridge.  The demolition left a vacant 3,350-foot tunnel and two stone bridge piers that sit to this day on both shores of the Monongahela.
 
1930s Urban Highway Plans:
Plans for new uses for the bridge and tunnel began in 1931.  Although both facilities were still carrying rail traffic, Allegheny County decided to purchase the tunnel for $3,000,000.  The reason: to create another access point connecting downtown from the South Hills.  The Liberty Bridge and Tunnels, which opened three years earlier, were wildly successful and already exceeding traffic expectations. (1)  The plan was to convert the tunnel, bridge, and elevated track downtown into an urban highway. This highway would begin with an interchange with Saw Mill Run Boulevard, run through the tunnel, across the bridge, and finally along the elevated track to Duquesne Way. (3) 

Grid of Wabash Urban Highway to Duquesne Way along the former elevated railway.  1931-36 Proposal. (3)

Artist drawing of Wabash Urban Highway, Downtown.  1931-36 Proposal. (1)
 
Wabash Urban Highway at Saw Mill Run Boulevard. 1931-36 Proposal. (8)
The plan would be blocked in November 1931 by a grand jury that ruled the proposal - specifically the bridge and tunnel - as inadequate for vehicular traffic. It ruled that the County misrepresented the project's true cost and that the commissioners did not get approval from the planning commission. (1)  The suit that resulted in the termination of the $3 million purchase was filed by Newton and Emma Hopkins.  They argued that the 21-foot-wide tunnel would be a "...hazard in the event an automobile should stall or be wrecked." (4) Coincidentally, this would be the same concern and reason why the tunnel only carries one lane today.  The County's 1931 proposal would have aprons built onto the bridge enabling it to handle four lanes of traffic; however, no plans were made to twin the tunnel. (4)
 
The 1931 failure would not stop additional attempts for the urban highway during the decade.  Urged again one year later by downtown business leaders, Allegheny County hired Ole Singsted to study the earlier plan.  The $5,000 study by Singsted endorsed the original plan with a suggestion to build a second tunnel to add two more lanes. (1)   The County tried again, via the New Deal Administration, for $3 million in 1934. Unfortunately, the funding was not approved. (1)  1936 saw the last attempt to convert the bridge to a highway; however, it never came to pass.
 
Skybus:
It wasn't until the mid-1960s that the next chapter in the Wabash Tunnel saga would begin.  The newly formed Port Authority of Allegheny County worked with the Westinghouse Corporation to demonstrate 'Skybus,' a fully automated transit system, at the County Fairgrounds in South Park.  By 1969, Skybus became the pivotal piece of the agency's Early Action Transit Plan.  The line would use the tunnel and cross into downtown via a new bridge.  The proposal received strong support from county leadership.  However, Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty, who won the election to the mayor's office in 1968, had just started his battle against the plan.  Although the system still needed to be approved, PAT moved forward and acquired the tunnel and spent $6 million on converting the tunnel for Skybus in 1971. (1)  Following a lengthy and well-publicized trial, PAT would see the public and politicians turn against the project.  Skybus would officially be dead by the mid-1970s.
 
Inside the refurbished Wabash Tunnel.  (Jeff Kitsko; December 2004).
A Solution to a Traffic Nightmare?
After the death of Skybus, the Wabash would sit empty.  The Port Authority would use it to store buses until vandals damaged over 80 buses in 1980. (5) In 1986, the City of Pittsburgh looked at converting the tunnel back to autos and creating a connection from Saw Mill Run Boulevard to Station Square. (6) 1992 saw the beginning of a decade-long process that would result in the tunnel's conversion for auto usage.  With the closure of the Ft. Pitt Bridge and Tunnels for reconstruction looming, PennDOT and officials from the City of Pittsburgh began to seriously look at the tunnel as an alternative for traffic when the bridge was closed.  In March 1992, PennDOT's Highway Bridge Capital Budget was amended to include a $35 million allocation for the construction of a new bridge over the Monongahela River that would use the former Wabash facilities. (7)  

One of the four Wabash Bridge proposals that were being considered by The Port Authority of Allegheny County.
The consensus was that the new Wabash Bridge and Tunnel would be an HOV facility.  In 1994, the Port Authority began a $3.2 million project to convert the tunnel from the never used Skybus configuration to auto usage. (5) For the next ten years, debate, revisions, postponements, and cutbacks would change the ultimate outcome.  Throughout the 1990s, arguments over the cost and design of the downtown ramps, plus protests voiced by downtown business owners - led by Steve "Froggy" Morris - would ultimately scrap plans for a new bridge.  Meanwhile, the complete rehabilitation of the Ft. Pitt Bridge and Tunnel would be delayed and ultimately completed in 2003.

The West Busway, which would later become part of the Wabash Project, was built and completed in 2000.  The final West Busway/Wabash Tunnel project became a scaled-back version as acquisition costs to connect the Busway between the Corliss and Wabash Tunnels became too high.  Finally, in 2003, construction began to connect the refurbished tunnel to Carson Street.  The tunnel opened for business on December 27, 2004. 

Or Just Another Boondoggle?

Opened as a reversible High Occupancy Vehicle facility requiring two or more passengers in each vehicle, the Wabash Tunnel fell well short of ridership expectations.  Original estimations predicted that the tunnel would see an average of 4,500 vehicles per day by 2015.  The facility only averaged 250 vehicles per day two years after it opened and only 500 vehicles per day by 2013. (9, 10) 

The Port Authority had contracted out the operation and maintenance of the facility to an outside firm.  The $780,000 operating expense to maintain the tunnels and roadway was originally subsidized. (9)  Because of the low usage, the operating expense was reduced to $200,000 by 2011. (11)  Due to the costs and low usage, the Port Authority had considered either closing or turning over the Wabash Tunnel to PennDOT. However, PAT would have had to reimburse the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) $20 million in grant money awarded to the project and the West Busway.

Additionally, PAT would face penalties from the FTA if they removed the HOV requirements.  In 2013, the FTA granted a temporary waiver to allow all vehicles, regardless of the number of occupants, to use the Wabash Tunnel due to a lengthy construction project along West Carson Street.  This waiver lasted three years when PAT was granted an additional one-year waiver from the FTA because of the Liberty Bridge rehabilitation project.  The Wabash Tunnel facility was considered an alternative relief route for traffic impacted by those projects.  Finally, in February 2017, the Federal Transit Administration granted a permanent waiver for the Wabash Tunnel allowing all passenger vehicles to use the facility regardless of the number of occupants.

Site Navigation:
Sources & Links:

  • (1) Hoover, Bob. "Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?" The Gazette. January 23, 1994: 5-7.
  • (2) Bennett, Joe. "Pittsburgh's Hard Luck Bridge." The Pittsburgh Press Roto. June 5, 1977.
  • (3) "Leaders Urge Wabash Deal." The Pittsburgh Press. May 18, 1932.
  • (4) Shields, Mark. "County Deal for Wabash Tube Fought." Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. October 24, 1931.
  • (5) Grata, Joe. "Wabash Tunnel, closed since 1946, to carry traffic starting tomorrow." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 26, 2004.
  • (6) Fisher, Ken. "Old Wabash Tunnel may be unsealed." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 31, 1986.
  • (7) Hopey, Don. "Wabash tunnel, bridge plans get state boost of $35 million." The Pittsburgh Press. March 21, 1992.
  • (8) Grata, Joe. "Wabash Tunnel At Impasse, Hardy Survivor Of Old Foes." The Pittsburgh Press. March 10, 1975.
  • (9) Grata, Joe. "Wabash Tunnel has become expensive venture." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 25, 2006.
  • (10) Fontaine, Tom. "Wabash Tunnel hours to be permanently restricted." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. May 17, 2003.
  • (11) Sheehan, Andy. "KDKA Investigation: Wabash Tunnel." KDKA-TV.  May 16, 2011.
  • (12) Blazina, Ed. "Wabash Tunnel to remain open to all vehicles to relieve rush-hour traffic." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 18, 2017. 
  • Wabash Bridge @ Pghbridges.com ---Bruce Cridlebaugh
  • Wabash Tunnel @ Pghbridges.com ---Bruce Cridlebaugh
  • West Busway/Wabash HOV Facility @ Pittsburgh Highways ---Jeff Kitsko
  • The Wabash Tunnel ---The Brookline Connection 
  • Wabash Tunnel & HOV ---Port Authority of Allegheny County

  • Update Log:
    • Page originally published January 16, 2005
    • Page moved to gribblenation.org - November 20, 2017
    • Various spelling and grammar updates - January 8, 2023.

    Comments

    Anonymous said…
    How is the Wabash tunnel doing nowadays in regards to traffic? And could a crossing on the old Wabash bridge site be built for recreational trail use? Just wondering.
    Adam said…
    Hi! The Wabash Tunnel does not have a lot of traffic. In fact, in 2017, they removed the HOV-2 restrictions in an attempt to generate more usage. I never thought of a bike/recreational bridge as an option. The closest I found was an old Bike Pittsburgh article from 2010. https://bikepgh.org/message-board/topic/wabash-tunnel/ I may take a look into it some more - it's a worthwhile possibility.

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