The story of bike commuting in Pittsburgh is arguably a tale of two cities. In some neighborhoods, new bike lanes and riverfront trails have carved out more room for cyclists. But if you're in the city's South Hills, those improvements might as well be happening in a different time zone.
While East End arteries like Fifth Avenue still might not be exactly bike-friendly, South Hills thoroughfares like Route 19 are practically suicidal. Even if a cyclist negotiates them successfully, Mount Washington awaits: Going over it requires hundreds of feet of vertical climb; going through it requires either driving a car or riding a bus or light-rail vehicle.
But what if cyclists could use the Wabash Tunnel instead?
Operated by the Port Authority, the tunnel lies about a third of the way from the Fort Pitt Tunnel to the Liberty Tubes. It delves into the mountainside just off Saw Mill Run Boulevard, emerging across the street from Station Square. In recent years, it's been used as an HOV lane for rush-hour commuters carrying at least one passenger. But while two lanes are painted on the roadway, there's only enough clearance to allow traffic in one direction at a time. So the tunnel is always half-empty at best ... and it's usually much emptier than that.
"We've been hearing from many cyclists who would like to see access to the Wabash Tunnel," says Scott Bricker, executive director of cycling-advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh. "So many people in the South Hills are interested in biking from there into the city. But that means going up and over Mount Washington, which is formidable unless you're a really strong cyclist."
The tunnel could offer a dramatic cycling experience. At more than 3,300 feet long, the Wabash is roughly the same length as the Great Allegheny Passage's Big Savage Tunnel, near the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. And though the Wabash offers a less impressive view of the Golden Triangle than you'll find emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel, cyclists would get to experience a bit of the scenery that car-commuters take for granted.
Converting the Wabash would not be easy. For one thing, notes Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie, the tunnel was renovated for HOV use with funding from the Federal Transit Authority ... and those dollars have strings attached. Even routine changes to tunnel operations — like an initiative to expand access during a construction project on West Carson Street — got snarled in months of red tape.
Then there are ongoing maintenance costs, and the challenge of reaching the tunnel in the first place. "You have to look at access," Bricker says. "Saw Mill Run is hugely busy and dangerous." Bricker says there may be more cost-effective ways to help South Hills cyclists, like bike-parking facilities at light-rail stations and other amenities to facilitate multi-modal transportation with the Port Authority.
On the other hand, "It's not a crazy idea at all," says Bricker — and it's certainly not the worst one in the tunnel's history. The Wabash was built in the early 1900s for a railroad that later went bankrupt. It was later envisioned as a key link for the Port Authority's now-notorious "Skybus" project, which was scuttled, and then for the West Busway, which was re-routed. Other proposed uses — like turning the tunnel into an underground cocktail lounge, or a giant bowling alley — have also failed to materialize, even when they were serious. It may be time for cyclists to have their turn.
And while converting the tunnel would be an uphill climb, it's hard to imagine it could be any steeper than Mount Washington itself.