This year there won’t be any 60th birthday celebrations for the tunnel Pittsburghers love to hate. Instead, the Squirrel Hill Tunnel has been a maze of bad news for local motorists: closures … detours … construction …When was the last week the Post-Gazette didn’t run a story about the Squirrel Hill Tunnel creating an inconvenience for drivers?
In Pittsburgh traffic lore, the Squirrel Hill Tunnel has become an epitome of congestion and frustration. “Its negatives,” as a reporter of the Post-Gazette once put it, “are as well known to the region as your basic Western Pennsylvania pothole.”
But 60 years ago, it was a Herculean task accompli, one of the state’s biggest construction jobs ever. The goal of building the tunnel was to cut the time of commute by 66 percent for those driving Downtown from Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs. Officials in Wilkinsburg, Edgewood and other suburbs lobbied for the project since 1920s. In 1948, the design of the tunnel was approved.
Reports at the time said that 400,000 cubic yards of material were removed, with crews of 20 men blasting their way through the limestone and shale on three shifts a day. According to the Post-Gazette, “They moved forward at a rate of about eight feet a day, which represented a slowdown after residents above and nearby complained that their walls were shaking and cracking.” Workers likened the work on the tunnel to a coal mine because of the noise, the blasting, the dust. It was terrible. Three workers were killed in accidents during the tunnel construction.
The 4,225-foot tunnel opened June 5, 1953. The cost of the project at that time was $18 million.
Just a decade after the Squirrel Hill Tunnel opened, the population growth was accelerating in the eastern suburbs and traffic backups of two to three miles became quite common. In 1993, the problem persisted. The Squirrel Hill Tunnel gave motorists regular headaches…. just like today. While approaching the other tunnels in Pittsburgh, you only guess if the traffic is going to be bad and hope you’re surprised. With the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, you never hope.
The Squirrel Hill Tunnel is ‘celebrating’ its 60th birthday under construction this year. Its ceiling is being raised to prevent trucks from crashing into it.
When it’s back in full operation, the Squirrel Hill Tunnel is likely to remain the tunnel Pittsburghers love to hate, but it has some cool attributes too. So, listen up, before honking out loud…. to FM broadcasting, for example. Carnegie Mellon students designed a system that enables motorists to access uniform FM coverage throughout the tunnel by capturing radio signals from outside the tunnel and re-amplifying them through a wire which spans the entire length of the tunnel.
The Squirrel Hill Tunnel also shares its birthday with a well-known Pittsburgher: Rick Sebak.