PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - While it remained open this past weekend, reconstruction of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel has been causing drivers a lot of headaches over the past few weeks.
Since PennDOT started its weekend closures of this tunnel a consistent question persists. Why are they taking out the false ceiling?
That question has several answers beginning with reducing the time you are sitting in your car.
The area above the ceiling was initially designed in the 1940s as the way to maximize the flow of exhaust and air out of the tunnel.
Huge fans pull air up through the slots in the roof and out of the tunnel.
However, more recent studies have shown the false roof was unnecessary and it's a problem easily solved by its removal.
"The clearance right now going into the tunnel is 13-feet-6-inches. We're going to open that up to 15-feet-6-inches inches. We average per month 40 overheight trucks that have to be stopped and turned around entering into the westbound Squirrel Hill Tunnel," PennDot Spokesman Jim Struzzi said.
Most of those overheight trucks are in the winter when overnight snows accumulate on top of trucks and set off the overheight sensors as they approach the tunnel.
Allowing the snowy truck in the tunnel could send cascades of snow onto cars following the trucks, or the truck could truly be overheight. Either way, they must be turned around.
"Every time you stop that truck you're stopping everyone behind them for 20 minutes, plus the time it takes that traffic to clear out," Struzzi said.
Plus, there is a claustrophobic effect of driving into that dark rectangle in the mountain. Drivers tend to perform a precautionary slow down as a result.
When the work is done, the hole will be bigger and much better lit, which will hopefully eliminate the tendency to slow down. Ironically, the removal of the roof is having the opposite effect.
"People are tending to slow down more than usual. Now, people see that the tunnel is opened up and they want to slow down and look at that," Struzzi said.
So if this works and it speeds up the traffic and eliminates the overheight truck issue, will a similar plan be used in the Fort Pitt Tunnel?
"Well, overheight trucks are not as big an issue at Fort Pitt. We average only four at Fort Pitt whereas I said we average 40 at Squirrel Hill," Struzzi said.
Plus, the Fort Pitt Tunnel was just redone and is a couple decades away from its next rehab.
As the plan currently stands, work on the inbound tunnel will be done next year, and the outbound tunnel rehab will include eight total weekend closures.
The Squirrel Hill Tunnel project us slated to be completed early in 2014.
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