Construction season is one of the more vexatious components of any summer in Pennsylvania. The above-average temperatures of recent weeks have made the daily commute into town just that much more of a chore than it already is.
Since around Memorial Day, the section of Route 65 southbound from the McKees Rocks Bridge has been impacted by a major reconstruction project. In mid-July, this project actually closed those southbound lanes and shunted traffic down onto Beaver Avenue.
Commuters on Route 65 faced with construction or traffic delays typically have an easy alternate route into town, by accessing Camp Horne Road, AKA the Green Belt, in Emsworth and traveling the two miles to I-279, AKA the Parkway North.
My route, however, takes me to the much-improved Route 28, and there are no easy ways to transition onto 28 from I-279 South, especially since PennDOT closed the ramp onto 28 North from East Ohio Street in late July.
Taking the Veterans Bridge to Crosstown Boulevard, with the intent of accessing I-376 via the Boulevard of the Allies, is complicated by traffic backing up to access the construction-laden Liberty Bridge. The traffic to get to the bridge often blocks access to the Allies off-ramp.
As a result of what increasingly feels like a conspiracy of congestion, I have endured the southbound Route 65 detour to get to Route 28. Thanks to a questionably timed construction project that began a week ago this past Monday, many commuters are having their drives complicated even further.
On August 15, Allegheny County Public Works closed Camp Horne Road about a quarter of a mile in from Route 65 for about 3 months. According to the Tribune-Review, this insult to commuter injury comes with a recommended detour of nearly 8 miles – taking motorists up I-79 and across Mount Nebo Road all the way to Lowries Run Road, where it becomes Camp Horne at the I-279 junction.
The County’s Public Works Department has been responsive and professional when I’ve made inquiries of them in the past, and this time was no exception. My question to them was as follows:
Can you advise how much coordination is being done with PennDOT on these and other projects, so as not to negatively impact vehicle traffic on multiple routes?
This is especially noteworthy due to the current closure of Route 65 south of the McKees Rocks Bridge until sometime in the fall, and the use of Camp Horne to I-279 by many commuters as an alternate route into the city.
It would appear that commuters are running out of options due to multiple projects that affect several primary routes of travel in the same general area at the same time.
Deputy Director Michael J. Dillon replied:
We have been coordinating this project with PennDOT and they are aware this work is going on. The detour we are posting for this closure does not conflict with any current work PennDOT is doing. I apologize for the inconvenience this project will cause but the wall supporting Camp Horne Road is quickly detreating (sic) and if it is not replaced could collapse and result in an emergency closure of the roadway. Thank you.
If the work needs to be done now, then that’s when it has to be done. Amidst the grudging acceptance of this fact comes frustration on several fronts related to the manner in which construction and maintenance occurs, and how it is communicated to the motoring public. Among these are:
Detours – As illustrated above, the posted detour for this closure, while chosen to accommodate all vehicles, is hideous nonetheless. Mr. Dillon explained the county’s rationale to the Trib:
Dillon said the county likes to use either roads it owns or state roads for such detours because they’re capable of handling larger traffic loads, as well as heavy trucks.
Dillon encouraged drivers to follow the posted detour and to avoid searching for shortcuts.
“There are neighborhoods and communities in that area, and those roads aren’t designed to handle that kind of traffic,” he said.
As Mr. Dillon stated, the ‘official’ detour is the only one suited for all manner of vehicles. If there is any positive to be taken from this, large trucks that would normally take Route 65 to get to Camp Horne will now be on Interstate 79.
This should not, however, preclude the identification of suitable alternate routes for passenger vehicles, some of which are illustrated above and below.
Some alternate routes are NOT suitable for a lot of traffic – they are just too narrow and steep. Examples are Toms Run Road, which connects Route 65 with Roosevelt Road from just south of the Glenfield Viaduct, and Eicher Road, which connects Roosevelt Road with Camp Horne just past the actual construction site. Eicher is so narrow at the bottom that it is a one way road down to Camp Horne.
It’s been reported that the Ohio Township Police have been stepping up patrols along Roosevelt Road to keep speeding and wrong-way vehicles in check. Safe, legal driving along unfamiliar, potentially over-used roadways is always a good idea.
Notification / Coordination – Allegheny County did themselves one better by closing Blackburn Road in Sewickley Heights between Thawmont Dr. and Country Club Road, on the same day as they closed Camp Horne.
The official detour for this closure is up Nevin Avenue in Sewickley – a densely populated residential neighborhood – to county-owned Waterworks Road, instead of the less developed but equally direct Glen Mitchell Road, which ends basically in the same spot in the Heights.
Generally, citizens and the media get about a one week or less advance notice of work being done by PennDOT or the county. While the logistical requirements related to contractors, etc. may be contributing factors to this, I can’t see any other reason to withhold information until such a short window exists, other than to prevent an organized outcry via mainstream and social media, or via outright protest.
PennDOT does deserve credit for their comprehensive 511PA website and mobile app, which provides information for state maintained roadways. Allegheny County provides visual and other project information via the robust County GIS website, which is comprehensive, current, and really useful.
As I’ve written about previously, what local jurisdictions do is very much hit or miss, and it hasn’t changed much in the nearly 4 years since my original post. Several weeks ago, I complained to PennDOT about an unannounced single lane closure of Route 65 south at the Haysville Light, where crews were replacing a traffic signal post.
A PennDOT representative replied that the work was being performed by a contractor for a local municipality, and they had NOT been notified of the work. They stated that the municipality would be reminded about their responsibility to communicate with PennDOT when doing work that impacts a state roadway.
Information and Advocacy – As much as the Internet has given numerous public and private entities the ability to receive, leverage, and distribute information about traffic disruptions in real-time, there really isn’t a comprehensive source that encompasses impacts on traffic by all of these entities – including utilities, tree service companies, and municipal authorities.
For me, the public roadways are critical infrastructure just like buried utility pipes or overhead power and telecommunications lines. As these deliver vital resources such as water, natural gas, and the Internet, and move waste products safely for treatment, our roadways move human and material resources to work, school, leisure, and the marketplace.
Any construction plans near buried utility lines requires a call beforehand to 8-1-1, the designated N-1-1 number for utility location services. Why shouldn’t any disruption to the normal flow of traffic require notification to a similar, publicly accessible information clearinghouse?
There are a few resources out there to help – one is the interactive, user-enabled traffic app Waze. I’ve been using this for several weeks now, and appreciate the timely updates from fellow motorists (and the ability to contribute myself), construction and delay information from PennDOT (which is an active participant), and accurate directions and drive times.
In other metro areas, apps like Waze are despised by residents in many neighborhoods for the ease in which shortcuts to avoid traffic and construction can be located – often through residential areas. I get the impression that these apps haven’t taken hold in Pittsburgh as much as elsewhere, but perhaps the frequent admonitions from PennDOT and others to stick to the posted detours is an indication that technology is giving commuters a viable tool in the battle against congestion.
There are, however, reasons for congestion that have roots in other issues than just the number of cars, and the inadequacy of many of our local road systems. It can be reasonably argued that roads like Camp Horne and Route 910 (through the greater Wexford metropolitan area) were not designed to handle the traffic associated with development activity that many consider excessive.
The inadequacy and expense of mass transit also contributes to the amount of vehicles on the roadways. I can take the bus to work – it takes 3 times as long, requires 2 transfers, and costs more than driving, as I can park for free. I feel for those who have to navigate this area without access to a vehicle.
I’m personally surprised that given the amount of time we spend commuting, and the expense involved in purchasing, maintaining, and insuring our vehicles, that an individual or group hasn’t stepped up to establish a regional platform for commuter information and grassroots advocacy.
One group that seems to come close to footing the bill is the National Motorists Association, which has been featured in the sidebar of this blog for several years. A brief statement about their history seems to sum it up very well:
The National Motorists Association was founded in 1982. We began by combating the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit and we continue to support efforts to retain motorists’ freedoms and rights. We support traffic laws based on sound engineering principles and public consensus — not political agendas.
The organization with which many are most familiar, the American Automobile Association, has a very robust exchange website that addresses numerous topics related to driver safety, along with encouraging government and industry to enhance the same. Their approach seems much different from that of the NMA, which paints many government efforts to improve safety as political affronts to both highway efficiency and individual liberty.
AAA wants to encourage motorists to obey posted speed limits and share the roadway with bicycles and other types of vehicles. NMA seems to support the same, but wants speed limits revised to the 85th percentile of prevailing speed as obtained via traffic studies – which means the limits may very well go up. NMA also opposes traffic calming, including the so-called Vision Zero initiative, which has in its toolbox something that has vexed Pittsburgh motorists in recent years – dedicated bike lanes.
Over this past weekend, PennDOT quietly opened a relief valve for some congestion with the resumption of normal traffic on Route 51 between the West End Circle and McKees Rocks after a three-year reconstruction project. This will likely take a lot of pressure off of northbound Route 65, which has often seen lengthy backups with commuters using it and the McKees Rocks Bridge as a detour.
That is, until the next construction project rolls around.
It’s also a good idea to keep in regular contact with your own municipality, to see when activities such as paving, utility work, and tree trimming are taking place. Ask them what efforts they are making to inform the community, and area motorists, in advance.
Have a great month ahead.