The Fort Pitt Tunnels

The Fort Pitt Tunnels southern portal.

The Fort Pitt Tunnels and the accompanying Fort Pitt Bridge are instrumental in linking the city of Pittsburgh with the growing suburbs to the south. It is the vital link in the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, bringing together the Parkway West and Parkway East and connecting Pittsburgh with the US Interstate highway system.

The construction of the tunnels, bridge and parkway were keystones in the major transportation upgrades initiated in the 1950s as part of Mayor David Lawrence's Renaissance I, contributing to the development of the Greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area. The effect of the Fort Pitt Tunnels rivaled those of the Liberty Tunnels and Bridge in the 1920s.

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Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge

The idea of building another tunnel through Mount Washington began in 1924 and became a hot topic in the 1930s, when the South Hills was undergoing rapid development and population increases. The road network had dramatically improved with the construction of Saw Mill Run Boulevard and Banksville Road, but getting all of that traffic around Mount Washington caused major traffic tie-ups.

Designers proposed building twin tubes, 3,750 in length, through Mount Washington and an accompanying bridge, slightly upriver from the existing Point Bridge, to link the tunnel with Water Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Called the Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge, the $8 million project was postponed due to lack of available funding and the onset of World War II.

The Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge
as shown here in a 1934 drawing were one alternative
to relieve traffic congestion in the South Hills.
The Fort Duquesne Tunnels and Bridge, as shown here in a 1934 artist's rendering were one
alternative to relieve traffic congestion from the South Hills to downtown.

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Before The Tunnels

Prior to 1950, the Banksville Traffic Circle (shown above in 1948) was the connecting link for Saw Mill Run Boulevard, Banksville Road and Woodville Avenue, a two lane roadway which was the only route to the West End. Getting from this point to downtown Pittsburgh was still a difficult travel, either south to the Liberty Tunnels or north along Woodville Avenue to the West End Circle. The circle would be replaced in the early-1950s.

The Banksville Traffic Circle in 1950

The Banksville Circle in 1950 showing the beginning
phases of the construction of the West End Bypass
which extended Saw Mill Run Blvd to Carson Street.    The new interchange at the Fort Pitt Tunnels
eliminated the old Banksville Circle and helped
extend the Saw Mill Run Blvd to Carson Street.
The traffic circle in 1950 (left), during construction of the West End Bypass extension, and the new
Fort Pitt Tunnels/I-279 interchange in 1958, during tunnel construction.

The dotted line on the photo above shows the path of the tunnels from the southern portal to the northern portal and downtown Pittsburgh. Also shown is the modern interchange constructed to link Saw Mill Run Boulevard, the West End Bypass, the Parkway West, Banksville Road and Woodville Avenue.

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The First In The World

In February 1956 the Fort Pitt Tunnel Commission announced that boring of the tunnel would begin preferably in the fall of that year. The two tubes would comprise four lanes, two in each direction, and would be the first tunnel in the world in which portal traffic at one end moves over two different levels. The northern portals are vertically offset to allow traffic to mesh with the double-deck construction of the accompanying Fort Pitt Bridge.

The Fort Pitt Tunnels northern portal.

Inbound traffic crosses the bridge on the upper deck. Outbound traffic uses the lower bridge deck and passes into the tunnel portal approximately forty feet lower in elevation. The outbound bore gradually rises to meet the elevation of its neighbor so that the southern portals are equal in elevation.

Artist's conception of the South Portal - 1956.
An artist's conception of the Southern Portals published on February 22, 1956.

The tunnel was originally slated to be operated on a toll basis, the only toll tunnel in the state outside the Pennsylvania Turnpike system. Plans called for eleven traffic lanes leading to ten tool booths at the south end of the tunnels. To help eliminate congestion at the gates, the state would issue monthly stickers to regular users. Fortunately, this provision was dropped.

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Fort Pitt Tunnel Construction (1957-1959)

The ground-breaking ceremony was held April 17, 1957, and the boring of the tunnels began August 28 and was completed the following May. Moving forward at nearly forty-six feet per day, the excavations removed nearly 7000 railroad carloads of rock and debris, which was used to fill a nearby valley along Banksville Road.

The surface of the roadway surface was done with paving bricks, which gave off a soft, steady humming sound while passing through the tunnels. Bright reflective tiles lined the walls and a dropped ceiling, which dramatically increased illumination.

An antenna that ran the length of each shaft, powerful enough to pick up both AM and FM radio, something new at the time for Pittsburgh motorists. Four huge blowers at each end keep the tubes clear of exhaust fumes. Each tube was equipped with a walkway to the right, but these were for use by tunnel personnel and not for pedestrians.

A control room at the southern portal has television screens to monitor traffic and a large panel with dials and switches that operate the various electronic functions. The use of television to monitor tunnel traffic was also believed to be a world first. The construction project took nearly two years and cost $17 million.

Building a base at the north portal - May 24, 1957.
Homes stand atop Duquesne Heights on May 24, 1957, as trucks remove debris from the south face of Mount Washington.
The hillside was excavated, gouged, blasted and shaped for workmen to begin the construction of the South Portals.

The tunnel boring machine - August 27, 1957.
Nicknamed "Jumbo" this $130,000 34-ton truck with mounted drilling platform was used to bore through Mount Washington.

Beginning the tunnel bore - August 29, 1957.
Boring began on August 28, 1957, using twelve pneumatic hammer type drills, mounted on "Jumbo's" platform.

Building a base at the north portal - November 17, 1957.
Digging a level space into the side of Mount Washington to provide a base for the northern portals on November 17, 1957.
Pending the arrival of the drillers, who began at the south end, workmen began construction of the North Portals.

Building a base at the north portal - June 22, 1958.
Giant molds stand outside the south entrance to the tunnels. Shown here on June 22, 1958, these molds were carried into
the shafts on rails. Once inside, concrete was forced into the space between the mold and the rough tunnel to form
a liner. When the concrete hardened the molds were moved ahead to a new section of the tunnel.

  

  

  

The northbound tunnel punched through on March 24, 1958.
The upper northbound tunnel punched through the face of Mount Washington on March 24, 1958.

Looking out the north portal of the Fort
Pitt Tunnels at downtown Pittsburgh.
View from the lower north portal of the Fort Pitt Tunnels on May 25, 1958, after workers
broke through the final few feet of rock on the north face of Mount Washington.

The south interchange at the Fort Pitt Tunnels - September 17, 1959.
The Fort Pitt Tunnel southern interchange on September 17, 1959. Construction in the contol center has begun.

The Southern Portals on September 27, 1959.
Progress on the southern portals and tunnel control building as of September 27, 1959.

The Southern Portals on August 7, 1960.
The main panel in the control center, located above the Southern Portals, shown on August 7, 1960.

Tunnel Engineer George M. Heinitsh on August 31, 1960.
Chief Tunnel Engineer George M. Heinitsh, on August 31, 1960, stands before his crowning achievement.
The eighty-year old World War I veteran spent the past six years working on the Fort Pitt Tunnels.
The newest gateway into the City of Pittsburgh would be dedicated the following day.

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Dedication Day

The tunnels were formally opened on September 1, 1960 with pomp and ceremony. Governor David Lawrence, former Mayor of Pittsburgh, gave a brief dedication speech at the tunnels south portal. The governor said, "Only a year ago, we gathered to open the new Fort Pitt Bridge. I said at that time that the bridge was a significant step forward in Pittsburgh's redevelopment."

I believe we can say the same for the tunnel," he added, "and since I an well acquainted with the West End traffic situation, I think this tunnel may be even more beneficial as a traffic facility."

Dedication Day - September 1, 1960.
Vehicles lined up near the tunnel entrance in anticipation of the formal opening on September 1, 1960.

Mayor Joseph M. Barr echoed the Governor's sentiments when he said "we can predict with certainty that the convenience afforded by the Fort Pitt TUnnel will in the years ahead spur new developments to the west and southwest of Downtown Pittsburgh."

After their speeches, the Governor and Mayor got into an antique car and led a procession of vintage vehicles through the tunnels and over the bridge to downtown, followed by a long line of cars and trucks that stretched far to the west up Greentree Hill, and a like distance eastward across the Fort Pitt Bridge. It was 11am when traffic began to move and the tunnels were officially operational.

Dedication Day - September 1, 1960.
Mayor Joseph Barr (no hat) and Governor David Lawrence (hat in hand) are the first passengers to travel through the
Fort Pitt Tunnels. Their motorcade continued across the recently constructed Fort Pitt Bridge on dedication day.

The Fort Pitt Bridge and tunnels were the new gateway to the City of Pittsburgh, one of the cornerstones of a modernization effort proposed by Robert Moses in 1939, known as the "Moses Plan". It was strongly hoped that this addition to the transportation network would, in addition to spurring development, bring much needed relief to the beleaguered South Hills motorist, who for years had languished in daily traffic jams during the morning and evening rush.

Of the highway tunnels in Allegheny County, the Fort Pitt Tunnels (3,614 feet) linking the east and west sections of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, are third in length behind the nearby Liberty Tunnels (5,889 feet) and the Squirrel Hill Tunnels (4,225 feet) along the Parkway East. When the tunnel opened the average usage was 40,000 vehicles per day. By 2018, that number had risen to 150,000.

Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnels - circa 1960.
The Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnels (circa 1960.)

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Out Of Control Trucks

The inbound approach to the Fort Pitt Tunnels is situated at the bottom of Greentree Hill, a 1.6 mile-long downhill stretch of highway with a 6% grade. Signs are posted notifying truck drivers of the steep grade and warning them to downshift and get in the right lane. These measures have prevented most, but not all of the accidents at the southern portals of the tunnels.

Collisions between trucks and automobiles, some fiery and many tragic, have plagued the tunnels since they opened in 1960. Many times the 18-wheelers have lost their brakes heading down the hill, and for one reason or another miss the truck ramp and continue speeding out-of-control towards the tunnel entrance. This has led to collisions at the entrance, inside the tunnels, on the bridge and in downtown Pittsburgh at the end of the bridge ramps.

Accident in Fort Pitt Tunnels - 06/04/65.
The scene at the South Portals after a runaway truck slammed into several cars near the entrance on June 4, 1965.

Accident in Fort Pitt Tunnels - 10/24/87.    Accident in Fort Pitt Tunnels - 10/23/79.
A truck loaded with bananas that caught fire after crashing into the South Portal on October 23, 1979,
and a rear-end truck-car crash inside the tunnels on October 24, 1987.

Accident in Fort Pitt Tunnels - 10/17/85. A fiery rear-end collision inside the tunnels on October 17, 1985.

Another problem with trucks that once plagued the tunnels were rigs that exceeded the height limit and got wedged between the roadway and the tunnel ceiling. The offending vehicles had their tires lowered and were towed out of the way of traffic, but not before causing interminable delays for motorists.

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Tunnel Reconstruction (1993-2003)

The Fort Pitt Tunnels underwent a major rehabilitation during the eleven-year period between 1993 and 2003. The project began in 1993/1994 with a $3.8 million replacement of the granite and metal facades at the north and south portals.

Fort Pitt Tunnels inboune - 3/23/03. This was the state of the inbound tube on March 23, 2003 showing the need for a thorough rehabilitation.

Then in 2002-2003, the tunnels themselves received a comprehensive overhaul along with the Fort Pitt Bridge. In 2002 work was done on the outbound tube, and in 2003 the inbound side. Work included a new roadbed, drainage, electrical systems, lighting and replacement of the wall tiles. The dropped tile ceiling was removed, exposing the arched concrete ceiling above.

When the entire decade-long project was completed in August 2003, the Fort Pitt Tunnels and Bridge were in a condition to serve the City of Pittsburgh for many years to come.

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Tunnel Expansion Proposal (2002)

One ambitious plan that was emerged during the reconstruction project was an expansion of the tunnel. Two more tubes would be bored through Mount Washington, one on either side of the existing tunnels. The addition of two inbound and outbound lanes would help alleviate the nagging rush hour congestion.

Tunnel Expansion Proposal - 09/22/02.
An artist's conception of the proposed expansion of the Fort Pitt Tunnels south portals - September 2002.

This proposal is still being kicked around as part of a $1.6 billion modernization plan. It is projected that traffic on Greentree Hill will increase 40% by 2025 and something must by done to prepare for that eventuality. We will have to wait and see what happens. Surely a solution must be found somewhere to the impending monster traffic tie-ups expected in the next decade.

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The Best Way To Enter An American City

View of Fort Pitt Bridge and City of
Pittsburgh when exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnels - 12/10/61.

Famous as the "best way to enter an American city," motorists traveling from the West on Interstate 279 are given no visual clues regarding their nearness to downtown Pittsburgh as they enter the Fort Pitt Tunnels. When their vehicle emerges on the other side, the Golden Triangle suddenly bursts into view framed by the golden crossbracing of the bridge's golden arches.

View of Fort Pitt Bridge and City of
Pittsburgh when exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnels.

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