Raymond E. Wilt Memorial Highway
Affectionately called the Parkway North, this Interstate is part of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway which has its beginnings in the 1930s. The Parkway West section, unlike the Parkway East, wasn't considered until 1936 and prior to that there was only limited citizen action supporting improved access to the western suburbs. That year, the County Planning Commission began studying a parkway which would have traversed the same right-of-way as today's Parkway West.
On April 9, 1937, a caravan of state officials as well as representatives of the Pittsburgh and Allegheny County governments and Penn-Lincoln Highway Association drove from Churchill to Campbells Run Road. After encountering the perils faced by trying to traverse the urban landscape with traffic signals, stop signs, and congestion, state officials agreed to adopt the Penn-Lincoln Highway as a state project at a dinner that evening.
Later in 1937, the Department of Highways' district engineer began studies and compile estimates on the Parkway. The County planning engineer was authorized to cooperate and provide assistance such as engineering services.
The US Bureau of Public Roads announced its approval of the expressway plan on September 16, 1938. The approved routes were virtually identical with the present Parkways, right down to the Squirrel Hill and Fort Pitt Tunnels. It would not be until 1941 when the Federal Public Roads Administration formally agreed to match state funds and prepare for construction.
As World War II was drawing to a close in 1943, postwar planning began in earnest in Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development was formed as a private citizens' organization to spearhead improvement programs such as the Penn-Lincoln Parkway. When the war concluded in 1945, the parkway was ready to begin. Through the influence of Attorney General James H. Duff and Richard K. Mellon, Governor Edward Maring approved $57 million for improvements in Pittsburgh, of which two were the Parkway, Crosstown Boulevard, and Point State Park construction. The plan was devised by Robert Moses, who was known for planning New York City's highway transportation system.
Moses' planned Point Interchange utilizing the former Point
and Manchester Bridges. Instead of the fountain, a beacon
was to be the center of focus at the point. I think the fountain
was a good choice. (Robert Moses)
|Penn-Lincoln Parkway Designs from 1952|
|Proposed Parkway West in Carnegie||Paul Slantis|
|Proposed Parkway West in Greentree|
|Proposed Parkway West and New Tunnel|
Construction began on July 25, 1950 when Governor James Duff tossed the first spade of dirt. On October 15, 1953, Governor John Fine and other dignitaries joined together on a platform at the Carnegie interchange to open the first section of expressway between Saw Mill Run Boulevard and its western terminus near the airport. Authorities said the 15-minute drive between downtown and the airport would be the "shortest trip to a major air terminal" in any city in the country. Traffic utilized the West End Bypass to detour around the unfinished tunnel and bridge. On July 11, 1954 contracts for the initial design of the tunnels were awarded. The groundbreaking for the tunnel was held on April 17, 1957 with the drilling commencing on August 28, 1957. The price tag for the project would be $17 million. On March 31, 1958, Mayor David L. Lawrence and Governor George L. Leader pushed the button that triggered the blast to eliminate the last amount of rock between the two tunnel bores from the opening in the side of Mount Washington facing downtown Pittsburgh. The Fort Pitt Bridge opened at 11 AM on June 19, 1959, which connected downtown to West Carson Street and replaced the old Point Bridge. At the time, it was the only double-decked, tied-arch bridge. The bridge became the center of attention three years later when a man climbed to the top of the arch on the upriver side and threatened to jump. In one of the first instances of television capturing a breaking story live, a KDKA-TV cameraman followed the man to the top to talk him down. Unfortunately, he was not successful as the man jumped into the Monongahela.
The $16 million Fort Pitt Tunnels opened at 2 PM on September 1, 1960, completing the Penn-Lincoln Parkway from Monroeville to the Airport. Originally conceived as a toll facility, Governor David Lawrence remarked at the opening: "As you know, this tunnel was originally intended as a toll facility. The fact that it is being opened, today, as a toll-free tunnel is one of the better pieces of news we have had for this community." The tunnels are 3,600 feet in length with 14 feet of clearance. Each portal has four centrifugal fans that push air through the tunnels and remove car exhaust.
for the Fort Pitt Bridge
- Pennsylvania Department of Highways
Specs for the Fort Pitt Tunnel - Pennsylvania Department of Highways
|Penn-Lincoln Parkway Construction|
|Fort Pitt Bridge in 1958||Paul Slantis|
|Northern Portal of the Fort Pitt Tunnel|
|Southern Portal of the Fort Pitt Tunnel||Pennsylvania
|Above Carnegie Facing West in 1951||Clyde Hare|
Construction costs came in at $14,630,000 with the Saw Mill Run Boulevard interchange making up $4,083,000 of that total. The Carson Street interchange cost $1,500,000, Fort Pitt Bridge cost $6,305,000, and downtown approaches to the bridge at $8,800,000. The total cost of the western half was $31,235,000.
Did you know that the double-rail barriers formerly on the Fort Pitt Bridge were actually installed backwards? You can still see an example of the backwards barrier on the Fort Duquesne Bridge, the Boulevard of the Allies, and the ramps around Point State Park. In 1962, a report was issued to have the railings installed with them facing inward to the highway which explains why I-579's look they way they do. This means that fewer truck accidents and payloads landing in Point State Park could have happened if the then Department of Highways would have re-bolted the brackets in response to the report.
Over the years, many designations have marked the current route of Interstate 279. Originally, from Interstate 79 to downtown, the I-70 designation was used until 1963. In 1963, the I-79 designation was extended from its former terminus at the Point to West Virginia. In 1972, the Interstate 76 designation was extended from the Point to Interstate 79. That same year, the I-279 designation was moved from the section of I-79 between its connections with I-279 north and west of the city to the current alignment to end at the Point. In 1973, the current route was created with the extension of the I-279 designation from downtown to I-79.
Temporary end of I-279 in Franklin Park in 1983.
In the mid-1960s, construction began on the Fort Duquesne Bridge. There was a problem with the bridge as it did not connect to anything on the North Side until 1969, when ramps were built to Ridge Avenue. Since the bridge did not connect to anything on the North Shore, it was given the nickname "Bridge to Nowhere." University of Pittsburgh Chemistry Senior Frederick Williams discovered the meaning when on December 12, 1964, he drove his aunt's borrowed station wagon past all of the barriers, went 90 feet horizontally then 100 feet down and crashed upside-down on the northern banks of the Allegheny River. He survived, climbing out of the crushed vehicle, and promptly hailed a cab to Allegheny General Hospital. He offered no explanation to the hospital staff, but police said that he had to be driving "at a tremendous rate of speed" to have made the leap.
All of that changed on October 16, 1969 at 11 AM, when it became a "bridge that is going somewhere." That was when traffic began to cross the bridge for the first time, on what was called "Bridge Day." The name coined because not only was the Fort Duquesne opening, but also the Birmingham and Vanport Bridges opened and the Point and Manchester Bridges were demolished that day.
Construction taking place on the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
(Pennsylvania Department of Highways)
Blanche Murphy, one of the many displaced residents, endured a six-month-long nightmare after the state took her original home and then placed her into one on Baytree Street on the North Side. "I'm so happy to be getting out of here," she said. "I was up all night just thinking about it." She had paid $19,500 for the house with money PennDOT paid her for her previous one, but almost as soon as she moved in on August 29, 1976, a unfortunate series of events played out. The gas line had to be replaced, plumbing became blocked, a wall was crumbling, Allegheny County had condemned the home, wiring needed to be replaced, and the City of Pittsburgh threatened action unless the code violations were corrected. Being on a fixed income of $300 a month and repair estimates of $10,000, Murphy felt stuck. As a result, one PennDOT employee had been suspended for two weeks and two others received reprimands. "I still don't have my money," was her only complaint as she moved in with her widowed sister, Matilda Schillinger in West View on February 3, 1977. Her nephew, Clem Schillinger, and Thelma Waldorf, who was sort of an East Street ombudsman, helped her pack. "I don't know what takes them so long to do everything."
Work "behind the scenes" continued on the controversial East Street Valley Expressway through much of the 1970s. Two incidents took place in 1977 involving members of the East Street community took place that further alienated residents towards the project. William Stang, who was renting a house at 2401 Magnet Street, found a wrecking crew gutting his home on March 17. "I couldn't believe it! When I asked them who ordered the destruction, they said they had no idea," said Stang. Not receiving any answers, he turned to City Councilman Eugene DePasquale. Depasquale, while accompanying Stang to the former site of his home, cited this as an example of the unfair treatment of East Street Valley residents by the state. "PennDOT is determined the expressway is going to be built no matter what. Are these the tactics they are resorting to? This could very well be the start of razing homes without consent," said DePasquale. Mr. Stang said he did not know the whereabouts of the other tenants, but a former neighbor told him the state gave him $3,600 to vacate which is a transaction Stang claimed he was never told about.
Later that same month, PennDOT offered to push back the deadline for evacuation of Saint Boniface Church from June 1 to August 19. Acting Transportation Secretary George Pulakos confirmed the offer made to the Most Reverend Vincent Leonard, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh on March 30. Although not having received a response, the offer was made at the request of the bishop who sought a six month delay. "We granted the near three-month extension to allow the diocese to salvage important and valuable artifacts from the church and to provide additional time for the orderly removal of valuable items such as the stained glass windows," explained Pulakos. Sources with the Department of Transportation said a six-month delay would be impossible because they would miss the 1977 construction season, and PennDOT hoped to award the first contracts that same year. While efforts were underway to save the church or alter or eliminate the expressway plan, diocese officials said the bishop was firm on his decision to not buy back the church. By this time, it had already been purchased by PennDOT under land condemnation proceedings at a price exceeding $2 million.
After three decades of indecision, ground was officially broken on June 16, 1982 for the long-awaited Parkway North. Governor Dick Thornburgh, Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri, and Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster each climbed atop a backhoe to signal the start of construction. The Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce described the ceremony, which took place underneath the East Street Bridge, as "a gala celebration" complete with band music, fireworks, balloons, and speeches. A motorcade with antique cars was included, and there was free doughnuts and coffee for everyone in attendance. Thornburgh compared the ground breaking to Bill Mazeroski's last inning home run to win the 1960 World Series for the Pirates and Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" which put the Steelers over the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 NFL Playoffs. Harris happened to be in attendance along with a dozen other sports figures including Art Rooney, the founder and owner of the Steelers.
Around 400 people in all braved a mid-morning drizzle that coincidentally ended as the ceremony began. Myron Cope, radio play-by-play man for the Steelers, suffered through a touch of laryngitis as the master of ceremonies. Mayor Caliguiri said, "Let the nation know that Pittsburgh has something to show the rest of the country." Governor Thornburgh, whose administration has pledged completion of this route, said, "You have displayed your faith today by brining few umbrellas." He added, "This road is vital to the economic future of this renaissance city. There were those of little faith who thought those days would never arrive, and who thought this day would never arrive," as a former Point Breeze resident. "But perseverance and persistence have paid off." Thornburgh was pleased to be a part of the ground breaking because "this is home. When I started in politics, the issue of whether to build this road was a topic." The Chamber of Commerce defended the hoopla as demonstrating support for PennDOT's highway building effort and to help convince the federal government to continue funding for the "missing links" in the Pittsburgh area.
Commissioner Foerster was more reserved in his excitement, recalling the pain and suffering the 1,800 families who were forced to relocate faced. "Thousands of people moved from this valley and experienced the trauma of being moved," he said. A bake shop, funeral parlor, and plumbing firm sat where the ground breaking ceremony along the west side of East Street took place. They were among more than 1,980 properties acquired over the previous decade by PennDOT, with only 18 parcels remained to be acquired. Frank Taylor, the Department of Transportation's right-of-way administrator, said properties that were first acquired were directly along East Street, and then on the slopes. Over the years, the valley had looked more like a bombed-out war zone as heavy equipment razed buildings.
One of those who felt the rain was more fitting than fireworks to mark the start of the project was Marty Krauss. He stayed at home and left the celebration to the politicians. "It's almost like celebrating the Vietnam War," Krauss said. For more than a decade, no one more than Marty Krauss had been identified with East Street and those who had to vacate the future right-of-way. "I can assure you that the people celebrating today live comfortably," he said. "They live in places like Mount Lebanon or Fox Chapel. They are not threatened by relocation. If they would be, they could get a good attorney." While he did not call the North Side home, it was as much as his one in Squirrel Hill. After graduating optometry school, he set up a practice on the floor above his father's jewelry store on East Ohio Street in 1938. Years later he would have to abandon the location due to the impending expressway. However, he felt he should do something to help the community that helped him, which is why he started HEART (Highway Emergency Aid and Relocation Team). The state was offering little more than what homeowners had paid for their houses years earlier. It was not as traumatic for younger people, as some were happy to move to the suburbs, but older folks it meant going back into debt with another mortgage. Even worse, it meant uprooting their lives, with some never recovering, only to languish in isolation in some high-rise. Krauss spoke for these simple, hard-working people who could not afford attorneys on retainer. While his critics considered it obstruction, he viewed it as looking out for people. Marty always maintained he had nothing against the highway, but if he had it to do over again he would oppose the highway. "I'm very sad, not because of the ground breaking. I think basically it's a start — a $2 million start of a $350 million road which may or may never be built. If this were the start of the whole project, it would be a joyous occasion and the sacrifice of 1,800 families would not have been in vain. But they are celebrating over the ashes of 1,800 families." Officials at the ground breaking did praise the thousands of people who had sacrificed their homes over the previous two decades. PennDOT spent more than $40 million to clear the right-of-way.
Nevertheless, construction began June 21, 1982 on the first contract comprising a 0.8-mile-long, three-lane "temporary roadway" for $2.25 million which ran along the western side of the valley between the East Street Bridge and Catoctin Street. Upon completion, traffic utilized the roadway while the former East Street was transformed into a service road for the expressway.
The entire Interstate 279 project was actually comprised of four smaller projects:
In 1985, construction began on the bulk of the Parkway North. The remaining section from the Fort Duquesne Bridge to I-79 opened on September 16, 1989 at a cost of $550 million, some three decadess after being proposed.
News report from the night of the grand opening. (WPXI-TV)
It has dedicated HOV lanes in the median in this section, which is a part of the Pittsburgh Busway System known as the North Hills Busway/North Hills Expressway HOV Lanes. Originally the minimum occupancy of vehicles for the lanes was three, but then it was lowered to two in 1992 and created a surge in ridership that has not been seen since.
View of I-279 under construction in the East Street Valley in
February 1989. (Arthur G. Smith)
The worst accident to occur on the HOV lanes occurred on August 25, 1995. Six people going to lunch became confused and entered the lanes heading outbound when they were set up for inbound traffic. The car, driven by Eleanor Siwicki of Pittsburgh made it as far as Saint Boniface Church before colliding head-on with a pickup truck driven by James Christy of Crafton Heights. Siwicki and four of her five passengers were killed as well as a passenger in Christy's truck. Christy and Bobbi Jo Shackelford, who was riding in the car driven by Siwicki, were both seriously injured. PennDOT employee William D. Snyder, who was found to be under the influence of trace amounts of opiates from a prescribed cough syrup, cocaine and marijuana at the time, was fired four days after he admitted that he reversed the order for closing and opening the access gates which allowed traffic to flow in both directions simultaneously. Snyder pleaded guilty to six counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment. During his sentencing in September 1996 where he was sentenced to seven and one-half to 34 years behind bars, he asked the victims' families "to forgive him" but added that "PennDOT was 90 percent at fault."
On June 12, 2003, Snyder sent an apology letter to several media outlets and then conducted a phone interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the following day from the minimum-security State Regional Correctional Facility at Mercer in Mercer County where he was incarcerated. "It's difficult. I dwell on what I've done," going on to add, "I'm very remorseful. It was a tragic accident. I didn't mean to do this." He looked at his one-page letter, which he had written over the previous three months, as a way to close the door on a day the families of the victims say they can't forget. "From the very moment I became aware that I was responsible for causing an accident, I was remorseful and shocked," Snyder wrote in the one-page letter. "Upon learning that 6 lives were lost and 2 people were critically injured, words cannot properly relate the level of horror, sorrow, anguish, guilt, confusion and panic that came over me and is with me to this day." In his letter, and unlike at his sentencing, Snyder placed the blame squarely on himself, admitting he was "irresponsible and negligent" and that the drugs in his system at the time were "contributing factors in my lack of proper thought processes at that most critical and devastating time." Adding that "I would never knowingly or willingly put anyone's or anything's life in danger." He told the Tribune-Review reporter that "It's been bothering me. I just felt I needed to do this," said Snyder. "I never really got to apologize to the families at my sentencing. I just wanted to do it publicly for the families and PennDOT and my family."
Some of the families questioned whether Snyder had ulterior motives for his statement because his minimum sentence was expiring on November 27 of that year. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole states that each inmate eligible for parole is guaranteed an interview with a parole review board three months before the end of their minimum sentence, and the preparation process begins six month prior which would have been May 2003 for Snyder. "My thoughts are he's using it to get out of jail," said John Ulanowicz, whose 16-year-old son, Daniel, died in the crash. "He should be in jail for the rest of his life. He put them there in their graves." Alice Ann Scheibel lost both her daughter Nancy, and sister Deborah Karlik in the tragedy, said "I know he's getting up for his parole. If he's not on his best behavior, he'll be turned down." She added, "How can I forgive this? I love my sister and daughter. How can I forgive him over time?" Snyder responded to the questioning of his sincerity by saying, "I would like to get out jail, no doubt, but this is no ploy or no manipulating on my part. It's just closure for me. This is something I'll live with until the day that I die." Snyder worked in the storeroom of the prison, loading and unloading supply trucks, and taking part in drug and alcohol, character development, stress and anger, citizenship and life skills programs. He told the reporter, "I've changed my life around," he said. "I look at things different." Scheibel feels the same way. "When I turn that radio on every morning and they talk about the HOV lane, it's there," she said. "I can't even drive into the city."
William Snyder was eventually granted parole and released on June 2, 2011. The lanes were closed immediately after the accident for several safety upgrades, but it didn't help ridership as it dropped to more than 1,000 vehicles per day. Wrong-way accidents are unheard of today; however, this hasn't helped to increase the number of users.
The Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel rehabilitation project which was to begin in 1993, but was pushed back to the latter part of the 1990s due to fiscal problems, officially kicked off in 1997. The project that would bring Pittsburgh to a grinding halt began with the granite facade of the tunnel being replaced and a year later the ramps from Carson Street being rehabilitated.
Wear and tear on the Parkway West section rearing its ugly head by 1998, repaving commenced on April 17 that year. PennDOT repaved the outbound section of the expressway from the Fort Pitt Tunnel to Interstate 79 on weekends. What was to take one and a half months, ended up lasting until the weekend of August 15. However, rain interfered with the timetable on five weekends, and work was forbidden on during the Pittsburgh Marathon, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Three Rivers Regatta, and the Steelers' first preseason home game.
On October 19, 1998, a truck jackknifed on the ramp from the I-376 to I-279 south. The driver lost control as he took the curve from the Parkway East to the Parkway West. The truck hit the left side of the ramp and the driver managed to steer the truck back onto the expressway. However, it then hit the right side and crashed through the bridge railing. The crash happened at 8:30 in the morning and took crews until 5:00 PM to clean up the area.
In that same month, a rental truck filled with items from a family that just moved to Pittsburgh tipped over on the bridge across Point State Park. All of the belongings spilled onto the park below. In December, a man who was stopped for DUI and speeding lost control and his car flew over the guide rail and landed in the park. Needless to say, it was quite a 1998 for Pittsburgh's Citiparks Department.
For those of you who hate losing the radio while you are going through a tunnel, you need to try the Fort Pitt Tunnels. In 1999, radio repeaters were installed through the tunnel so that motorists could receive FM and AM broadcasts. The system was developed by hometown institution, Carnegie Mellon University. A year later, an advanced overheight warning system was installed at the western portal.
Not one, but three reconstruction projects relating to the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel rehabilitation project occurred in the last year of the 20th Century: the outbound 10th Street Bypass, Liberty Avenue, and the Portal Bridge. On April 29, 1999 the southbound Portal Bridge which carry traffic from the Fort Duquesne Bridge, 10th Street Bypass and Fort Duquesne Boulevard to the Fort Pitt Bridge reopened on July 28, 1999. August 1, 1999 the Liberty Avenue ramps closed and reopened 45 days later. The northbound lanes As part of the $15.3 million project, the 24-inch-high concrete sidewalls were replace by 42-inch-high to prevent trucks from tipping over and spilling their loads into Point State Park below.
View of the Fort Pitt Bridge from the Monongahela River.
On March 15, 2000, the next step in the bridge and tunnel rehabilitation saw the Boulevard of the Allies off ramp closed for repairs. They reopened in Summer 2000. The next to be rebuilt was the inbound ramps to the Fort Duquesne Bridge, Tenth Street Bypass, and Fort Duquesne Boulevard. These reopened on November 17, 2000, in time for Pittsburgh's Light-Up Night. The the ramps from I-376 to the Fort Duquesne Bridge closed on August 14. Access to the Fort Duquesne Bridge from Commonwealth Place and Fort Pitt Boulevard was also shut down.
One of the strangest events to take place on a highway in Pittsburgh happened before dawn on April 17, 2000. Parts of the Interstate in the East Street Valley, and a few other highways, were doused with white, blue, yellow, red, and green paints. Officials with the Department of Transportation called it a random act of vandalism. PennDOT believes some vehicles received splatter damage before tires spread it and it dried. In fact, one of the PennDOT maintenance vehicles responding to the incident got paint on it as well.
A maintenance crew working the midnight shift spread absorbents and some sand on several of the spots. Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for PennDOT, said that the crews also picked up a number of open one gallon paint cans and the cardboard boxes in which they were shipped.
He went on to say, "This is the time of year when we're repainting highway lines, and we don't need any help. This type of activity can lead to driver confusion and a serious accident. If the person or persons responsible are caught, we intend to prosecute to the full extent of the law. Our maintenance people said it looked like someone drove along and flipped the cans out the window and into the air. It was too random to be paint accidentally falling off the back of a truck. It was intentional."
If you were traveling the Parkways on January 11, 2001, you have my sympathy. On that day, not one but two trucks ended up getting lodged in both the Squirrel Hill and Fort Pitt Tunnels and during both rush hours. This is not the first time a truck has become wedged in either tunnel as it has happened many times over the years; however, it was the first time where it happened twice on the same day. The first incident involving trucks and tunnels occurred just before 7:00 AM in the Fort Pitt Tunnel when the air supply system on a tractor-trailer broke and locked up the brakes on the inbound truck. A 911 operator alerted tunnel crews to a supposedly overturned truck in the right lane. Workers arrived on the scene and soon had one of the two inbound lanes reopened. Not soon enough, as this resulted in a miles-long traffic jam stretching to the Interstate 79 interchange on the Parkway, and also causing delays on the alternate routes into the city.
PennDOT spokesman Dick Skrinjar said that the truck "probably wouldn't have passed a Pennsylvania mechanical inspection. Our tunnel guys said that it was a piece of junk." The truck was then towed to an emergency pull-off near the Grant Street exit, complying with a PennDOT policy regarding breakdowns in the tunnel or on interstate bridges around Point State Park. Even with the truck being towed out of the tunnel at 8:40 AM, traffic delays lasted for much of the morning.
The exit renumbering that took place on I-279 in the summer of 2000 was not the first for one segment of the expressway. In 1964, when the designation changed from I-70 to I-79 from the current I-79 interchange to the Point, so did the exit numbers to continue the numbering sequence. The numbers began with Exit 17 at Rosslyn Farms and ended with Exit 21 at US 19/PA 51, and afterwards Rosslyn Farms became Exit 16 and US 19/PA 51 became Exit 20. The remaining exits to the bridge were not numbered. When the Fort Duquesne Bridge opened, and I-279 was proposed to end at the Point, exit numbers were placed on that section beginning with Exit 1 at Liberty Avenue and Exit 4 for Three Rivers Stadium, now North Shore. In 1978, the entire route was renumbered to reflect the start of I-279 at I-79 west of Pittsburgh.
On April 6, 2002, the first severe impact of the project on I-279/US 22/US 30/Truck US 19 traffic was felt when the outbound bridge and tunnel were closed. The closing lasted until July 31, a full month earlier than what was projected. Almost a year later, on March 28, the inbound bridge and tunnel were closed, but the detours remained the same as the previous year's work. Inbound traffic would use the outbound lanes and outbound traffic would detour around the tunnel.
In September 2002, the $1.5 million Airport Multimodal Corridor Major Investment Study was released which was music to the ears of commuters using the Parkway West. It called for the expressway to be widened to eight lanes before 2025 and the addition of two bus-only lanes or a light-rail line from Downtown to the airport. The combination of widening and one of the two mass transit options would cost $1.6 to $1.8 billion. Without the added capacity, the morning jam that begins at Green Tree Hill would extend all the way to I-79.
The lanes would be configured for different directions at the Fort Pitt Tunnel, with the outer two going into a new inbound tunnel and utilizing the right two lanes of the bridge for a connection to the Parkway East or Grant Street interchange. The left two lanes would pass through the existing tunnel to the Boulevard of the Allies, Liberty Avenue, Fort Duquesne Boulevard, 10th Street Bypass, and Fort Duquesne Bridge. The ramps to and from West Carson Street would be closed but all other interchanges would be rebuilt, including the construction of the missing I-79 ramps and completing the West End Circle interchange. It would take about 10 years to go through impact studies, property acquisition, and utility relocation not to mention construction itself. The study was commissioned by the Port Authority, PennDOT, Allegheny County, the county's airport authority, the city of Pittsburgh and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.
A fire broke out on May 16, 2003, while renovations were occurring on the inbound tunnel. The fire damaged or completely destroyed several construction vehicles such as a lift truck, a Bobcat loader, and four all-terrain vehicles that were in the tunnel and charred the tunnel face. The heat was so intense that it blackened and made the ceramic tiles on the face pop off the wall and melted bolts holding the aluminum letters that display the tunnel name. Four employees working in the tunnel control rooms at the time smelled then saw the smoke, and called the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau at 11:18 PM. Even though the fire did not spread to the outbound lanes, it did damage the electrical system, which meant that those lanes would not have lights, ventilation, or sensors to detect trucks too tall to enter the tunnel. The fire also knocked out a "muliplexer" where wires from the surveillance cameras along the Parkways are fed into a fiber-optic cable that sends the images to the PennDOT traffic management center in Collier. Dick Skrinjar of PennDOT said that 48 of the 62 cameras that are on the Parkway North and East were not operating on Sunday. Luckily no one was injured and the tunnel reopened on May 18.
The 11-year bridge/tunnel rehabilitation project came to an end on August 16, 2003 at 9:00 AM when the inbound tunnel and bridge were reopened. The outbound side opened to normal traffic on August 23, 2003 at 9:00 AM after being used as an inbound direction during the construction. The week was used to return that side and approaches back to carrying southbound traffic. The connection from Fort Pitt Bridge to the Fort Duquesne Bridge and 10th Street Bypass opened on August 27, 2003. The ramp from the bridge to Interstate 376 reopened on October 1, 2003, when the rehabilitation of the Parkway from the bridge to Grant Street was completed.
Winter 2004 was just not kind to the Parkway, what with the tunnel leaking and potholes...lots of potholes. "It looks more like Baghdad than Pittsburgh," said spokesman Dick Skrinjar. "And we're as upset about it as the motorists are." The section where these massive craters were opening up was between the Green Tree and Rosslyn Farms interchanges. It was only in 1998 that the section was paved with SuperPave, which is short for Superior Performing Asphalt Pavement, and was meant to keep I-279 smooth until 2013. The $6 million project was the first in Pennsylvania to use the material, and one of 14 done at that time to develop problems. The problem got so bad, The Pothole Terminator was brought in from District 12 where it is usually employed to patch holes on rural roads in Westmoreland County. The self-propelled machine removes the debris from the pothole, puts oil in the bottom, and spreads stones on top. The machine carried five and one-half tons of stone and 200 gallons of oil, which would keep it going for three to four hours. The second repaving project got underway on May 14, and working almost every weekend except Memorial Day and Fourth of July, finished three months later. The cost of the redo was $7.8 million.
Not potholes, but a flasher was causing problems for women motorists on the North Side in October 2003. A woman reported that when she was driving south on I-279 near PNC Park, a man with dark hair and a beard in a white, extended-cap pickup truck pulled beside her and "lifted his body up so she could see" his penis. He then exited off onto Ohio River Boulevard.
Whether it was due to potholes or most likely the weather, a massive eight car pileup occurred around 3 PM on January 30, 2004 on the southbound side after the PA 121 interchange. However, so emergency crews could access the scene, both sides of the Parkway had to be closed. State Police reopened the expressway 45 minutes later, but not after traffic had backed up all the way across the Fort Pitt Bridge.
For years, commuters have complained to PennDOT about the HOV Lanes in the median. When they opened in 1989, they had a three passenger/vehicle restriction which was lowered to two passengers in 1992 after complaints that the lanes were rarely used. That was also the year usage peaked at 4,857 vehicles but has since declined 20% to 3,861 vehicles. Complaints now focus on that they should be converted to regular through lanes; however, it isn't as easy as people think. The lanes have shoulders with storm drains that would have to be relocated, and the exits/entries were not designed to handle large volumes of traffic. PennDOT says it would cost millions to convert the lanes, and if anything was done, it could be converted for dual use by vehicles and light-rail in the future. Also the idea of turning them into HOT (High Occupancy Toll) Lanes has been floated. This concept is used it many parts of the country, where during rush hours, people are charged to ride continuous flowing lanes separate from the congested main ones.
There are hardly any incidences of road rage involving guns on Pennsylvania's highways, but one occurred on the night of December 12, 2004. The shooter was upset at the driver of a van he was trying to pass on the Fort Pitt Bridge. When he finally did pass, he fired into the passenger side of the van which struck the passenger in the leg. The passenger was taken to Mercy Hospital for treatment, and the driver was not injured.
If people talking on cell phones while driving wasn't a distraction, how about people performing stunts outside the car or "car surfing?" Off-duty State Trooper Jolando Hinton witnessed just that on July 13, 2005 while traveling southbound. Brian Crawford of Irwin, a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and aspiring stuntman, was seen climbing around the vehicle he was a passenger in, performing stunts that will make you cringe all while traveling 60 MPH. One of his friends was videotaping the stunts, which included hanging on the side of the car and "Superman" where he hung vertically only a foot off the ground, with an Art Institute camera. The stunts continued for two miles until on-duty troopers pulled the car over near Robinson Town Centre and found four men in the car ranging in age from 19 to 21. They faced reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct charges, and punishment by the school for using equipment in a criminal activity.
On October 17, 2005, US Senator Rick Santorum and US Representative Melissa Hart made an announcement at Pittsburgh International Airport that has been years in coming. Originally planned to be truncated by January 1, 2009, the Interstate 376 designation was extended westward to I-79 on June 10, 2009 as part of the eventual redesignation of the Parkway West, Airport Parkway, Southern Expressway, Beaver Valley Expressway, and James E. Ross Highway as I-376. On that date, the I-279 designation was truncated to the Point.
The latest improvements to the HOV lanes were unveiled on May 18, 2006 in the form of a $770,000 automated "fast-acting" gate system which are the latest in a series of improvements such as CCTV cameras, automated interlocks on permanent gates, and improved signage since the 1995 accident. The new gates will be down during morning rush hours with overhead sensors to detect approaching inbound vehicles. If one is detected, the gate will raise to allow it to pass. During afternoon rush hours and weekends when the HOV lanes are open in the outbound direction, the gates will be up.
Projectiles thrown onto the expressway around the Carnegie area has been a problem between September 22, 2005 and March 20, 2007. State Police announced the capture of Jeffrey Angelo Ramous of Carnegie on March 22, 2007 who admitted to throwing around 100 large rocks and bricks in the area of the Norfolk and Southern Railroad trestle which struck at least 12 vehicles. Ramous will be charged with 10 counts of aggravated assault, propulsion of missiles, risking a catastrophe, and recklessly endangering another person. The problem seemed to have ended until March 24 when a driver had his face bloodied by a rock that went through his windshield near the trestle. Police searched the area with a helicopter looking for the suspect.
In the post-September 11 world, everything seems to be a target including the tunnels in Pittsburgh. They became the target of a bomb scare on June 1, 2007 when a call was made at 5:45 PM to Allegheny County 911 from a pay phone at Carson Street and 12th Street on the South Side. State Police and PennDOT closed the Squirrel Hill, Fort Pitt, and Liberty Tunnels. Traffic was at a standstill as police turned vehicles around at the portals. After security sweeps, the Squirrel Hill Tunnel reopened at 6:20 PM and the other two a half hour later. The FBI is now involved with the case and the phone where the call originated has been confiscated.
With its age beginning to show, rehabilitation work was long overdue for the Fort Duquesne Bridge which is an important crossing in the local highway network and carries much of the traffic to PNC Park and Heinz Field. The project was initially unfunded in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission's transportation improvement plan but was started due to an infusion of money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Not expecting any work to begin, PennDOT had to rush through the construction plans to get the project to bid. Work began on August 10, 2009, unfortunately one day after the Rivers Casino opened its doors for the first time. General Manager Ed Fasulo said, "Anytime they potentially disrupt access it's a concern. But it's one of those things that has to be done. There's never a good time to do it. We understand that it's for the public good," adding, "We'll try to make the best of it." Construction began on the lower deck first and then moved to the upper deck, which was needed to increase the usefulness of the span for another 15 to 25 years before requiring another overhaul. The project included improvements to 16 bridge and ramp structures, steel repairs, expansion dam replacements, concrete deck and substructure repairs, resetting of rocker bearings, new signage and pavement markings and was completed in 2010.
Work also began in 2009 to eliminate the bottleneck where I-279 merges back into its parent route, I-79. From the time the Parkway North opened until January 2010, northbound traffic destined for Interstate 79 had to merge from two lanes into one that became the latter's third lane. The project entailed milling and resurfacing the former shoulder to turn it into a lane, building a new 12-foot-wide shoulder, and restriping lane lines which was a shorter period of time than it would have to redesign and reconstruct the interchange. The $550,000 project now has both northbound lanes flowing onto I-79, which is now four lanes but narrows to three farther north from the Interstate 279 merge.
The first day of 2011 was not good for travelers and one person in particular. Ross Township Police showed up a little after 3 PM to find a woman threatening to jump off of the Perrysville Avenue overpass. She told the police that she did not want to jump, but due to where she was standing on the bridge, firefighters from Berkley Hills Fire Department had to rescue her which required closure of the Interstate until 4 PM. On March 15, 2011, a psychiatric patient managed to jump out of an ambulance traveling northbound. State Police said the man tried flagging down passing drivers, and jumped into one person's car. "I realized there was an individual running up the left shoulder waving at cars. As I got closer I saw that he had jumped into a car. He actually had a car stopped and jumped in," Allegheny County Sheriff's Deputy Glenn Hores said. "He was very confused. He wanted me to check the credentials of those driving the ambulance. He didn't trust their credentials." The deputies were able to stop the patient and another ambulance transported him to UPMC Northwest in Seneca.
A project resurfacing ramps connecting the Fort Duquesne Bridge to various roadways began the night of April 16, 2012. The $8.7 million project took place on roughly 20 ramps and concluded in Fall 2013.
The first major rehabilitation project on the Parkway North began on April 17, 2017 starting first in the southbound direction. "The commonwealth is committed to providing investments for a safe and reliable transportation system," said Governor Tom Wolf. "The I-279 Parkway North project will deliver quality improvements for tens of thousands of travelers who use the roadway on a daily basis." Work included concrete patching and overlay, preservation of 30 bridges and 49 overhead sign structures, repair to 29 walls, ramp repairs, lighting improvements, sign updates, guide rail and drainage improvements, and the installation of an anti-icing system on the bridges at the McKnight Road interchange. To allow for construction, the HOV lanes were closed from April 10 to April 16 to allow time to reconfigure travel lanes for the closure. One lane of southbound traffic was crossed over into the northbound lanes at Exit 8 with both southbound lanes shifted into the HOV lanes at Exit 5 before rejoining the mainline lanes south of McKnight Road near Venture Street. Normal traffic patterns resumed on August 29. The same closure was implemented for northbound traffic on March 11, 2018, with traffic shifted into the HOV lanes south of McKnight Road to Exit 8, but the left lane of traffic was shifted to the southbound side while the right lane provided access to all of the exits. Work then switched to the northbound direction in 2018 and included reconfiguring the ramp from Interstate 579 to Interstate 279 to reduce the merging "crunch" at that location, lengthening the on-ramps from Madison Avenue and Perrysville Avenue, and resurfacing PA 28 between Anderson Street and Chestnut Street. The HOV lanes reopened for the last segment of work reopened to traffic on August 31, 2018. The final closure of the HOV lanes began April 2, 2019 in order for concrete patching, drainage modification, resurfacing, installation of anti-icing system, expansion dam repairs, rebuilding of mountable curbs and islands, installation of fast-acting gates at entry/exit points, installation of new lane control system overhead signs, ITS improvements, and installation of pavement markers. The HOV lanes reopened on June 17, 2019 with the exception of the ramp to Perrysville Avenue/Park-and-Ride which reopened on July 3 which signaled the end of the $87.94 million project.
The weather was not kind to southwestern Pennsylvania during the last week of May 2019. On the evening of May 29, a bolt of lightning hit a telephone pole that carried lines along PA 910 and across Interstate 79 at Exit 73 in Franklin Park. That pole snapped, causing a chain reaction with the weight of the lines falling causing the poles that carry the lines across Interstate 79 to lean. Erring on the side of caution, PennDOT decided to close the roadway northbound between Exit 68 and Exit 75 around 5:30 PM. Due to this closure, northbound Interstate 279 had to be closed at Exit 8 which caused massive traffic congestion in the area. "We were concerned with public safety with live wires above I-79," a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said. Penn Power crews responded and began to replace the leaning poles. The Interstate between Exit 8 and I-79 reopened a little before 11 PM when the latter was reopened to traffic.
When the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic swept into the country in March 2020, PennDOT took measures to stem the spread to their employees and staff. All rest areas and welcome centers and Driver License and Photo License centers were closed for two weeks, and construction projects on roads under the Department of Transportation's jurisdiction were stopped as of Tuesday, March 17. PennDOT District 11 decided to indefinitely close the HOV lanes for public safety purposes as well. District Spokesman Steve Cowan said it was necessary as staff were working and have limited access to all of the normal traffic cameras. "We won't have the compliment of maintenance personnel on the ground to keep the HOV lanes open to the level of safeness that we are comfortable with. Additionally, we are anticipating much lower traffic volumes." The closure was to have begun at 5 AM on March 17, but District 11 decided to keep them closed after a fatal accident took place Monday evening. The lanes reopened to northbound traffic on May 21, 2021. Studies showed that more traffic was moving in that direction versus southbound at the time, but that a move back to bi-directional usage would be eventually taken once it was warranted. The HOV lanes reopened to inbound traffic for the morning commute on August 4, 2021.
Interstate 279 Ends
Interstate 279 Pictures
North Hills Busway/North Hills Expressway HOV Lanes Map
HOV Lanes - PennDOT
I-279 HOV Lanes - Port Authority of Allegheny County
Fort Duquesne Bridge - Bruce Cridlebaugh
Historic Bridges at the Point - Bruce Cridlebaugh
The I-279/376 Downtown Connector - Adam Prince
I-279 Interchange Browser - Tim Reichard
Interstate 279 - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Interstate 279 - Scott Oglesby
Interstate 279 Pictures - Steve Alpert
Interstate 279 Pictures - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Portal Bridge - Bruce Cridlebaugh
|Southern Terminus:||I-376/US 22/US 30 at Exit 70C in Pittsburgh|
|Northern Terminus:||I-79 at Exit 72 in Franklin Park|
|National Highway System:||Entire length|
North Shore Expressway: Exit 1B to Exit 2B
East Street Valley Expressway: Exit 2B to Exit 3
North Hills Expressway: Exit 3 to I-79
Raymond E. Wilt Memorial Highway: Exit 2B to I-79
Parkway North: Exit 2B to I-79
6279 (HOV lanes)
|Operate in the median
of the Interstate from Stadium Drive East to north of US 19/Perrysville
Avenue. Open to cars, trucks, and vans with two or more occupants and
all motorcycles Monday through Friday.
Inbound: 6 AM - 9 AM
Outbound: 4 PM - 7 PM
Open to all vehicles outbound 7 PM Friday to 5 AM Monday.
|Multiplexed Route:||Truck US 19: I-376/US 22/US 30 to Exit 4|
|Former Designation:||I-79 (1964 - 1972): I-376/US 22/US 30 to Exit 1B|
|Former LR Designations:||1039: I-376 to Exit 1B
1021: 0.5 mile south of I-79 to I-79
|I-376/US 22/US 30 to Exit 1B|
HOV-North Canal Street
HOV-Park & Ride
Union Avenue South
Union Avenue North
Ben Avon Heights Road
Camp Horne Road
|Advisory Radio:||1620 AM|