This article was originally published on July 26, 2012.
Apparently, $15-$20 million will only get you so far.
A large intersection improvement project coming to the Route 51-Route 88 junction with that price tag will accomplish a lot of things—a left turning lane onto Stewart Avenue, a jughandle around Rite Aid, and more—but, as Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 11-0 Executive Dan Cessna said, "This is not a flood improvement project."
Make no mistake, though: Cessna and Rosanne Rodgers—project manager for PennDOT contractor SAI Consulting Engineers—made it clear at a public meeting on Wednesday that their project will take some steps to lessen the possibility of flooding at the popular intersection. For example, the infrastructure of existing bridges will be improved and, in some cases, rebuilt, and the merge point of the adjacent Weyman Run and Saw Mill Run waterways will be pushed farther up Route 51 heading north toward downtown Pittsburgh.
But PennDOT and SAI Consulting employees have said that money spent on the intersection project will focus on improving the flow of traffic, not water, and that existing streams will not be re-routed.
As Ollie Jedlick, of Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood, put it, "(Cessna's) basically saying, 'That ain't my J-O-B.'"
Jedlick was one of approximately 100 local residents to attend Wednesday's meeting at Saint Norbert Church Hall in the Overbrook neighborhood. The hall sits on a hill on Saint Norberts Street and overlooks the entire 51-88 intersection from Stewart Avenue in Whitehall Borough to Ivyglen Street in Overbrook.
Like many locals, Jedlick was wishing for more out of the project's plans—raised ramps to lessen time at stoplights, perhaps (such as the Liberty Tunnel-area improvements made a few years back)—but he acknowledged that only so much can be done with the funds available.
Nevertheless, he was happy to see the improvements that are coming.
Highlights of the project, which is scheduled to formally begin in early 2013 and wrap up toward the end of 2014, and is overseen by both PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, include:
- The addition of a left turning lane that takes traffic from Route 51 North onto Stewart Avenue
- The addition of a righthand jughandle that takes traffic from Route 51 North around a nearby Rite Aid and allows that traffic to turn left onto Hillview Street, go straight onto Route 88, turn right onto Ivyglen Street or bear right onto Glenbury Street
- The elimination of left turns onto Hillview, Route 88 or Glenbury
- The elimination of left turns from Route 51 South onto Underwood or Ivyglen streets (toward Saint Norbert Parish)
- The elimination of a stoplight at the end of Hillview
- The elimination of anything but right turns from Hillview onto Route 51 South
- The widening of Stewart Avenue to accommodate increased traffic from Route 51 restrictions (Route 51 South traffic wanting to turn left onto Underwood or Ivyglen, and Hillview traffic wanting anything but a right turn, will have to take Fairhaven Road to Stewart Avenue to the Route 51 jughandle.)
- Better defined traffic signals, crosswalks and other line paintings
Other improvements will include the addition of green spaces and sidewalks.
"You can basically walk from one end of the project to the other (once it's completed)," Cessna said.
And of course, there is that waterway improvement, where workers will push a merge point of the Weyman Run and Saw Mill Run creeks farther up north on Route 51 to allow for storm water to have more time and space to dissipate.
Currently, the merge point for the creeks is located underneath the road—out of pedestrians and motorists' view—where Route 51 and Route 88 actually intersect (roughly, Ivyglen), but the improvement project will move the merger past Glenbury.
And while officials said that high water will still be a very real concern at 51-88, any adjustments aimed at improving water flow there will be welcomed since the intersection has shown to be prone to severe flooding, as evidenced by events earlier this month.
"Things will be better, but it does not solve the flooding problem," Rodgers said.
The entire project will be done in no more than 10 phases. Delays, detours and occasional loud noises are to be expected, but Rodgers said that workers can maintain two lanes of traffic in each direction on Route 51 during construction.
The short-term detours will be for Stewart, Fairhaven and Route 88 North.
Seven full properties were acquired by the state or will be acquired soon in order to make room for this project, and 25 partial or temporary acquisitions were made or will be made.
Some utility poles and lines, as well as residents and businesses, will be relocated.
Pat Leopardi, the owner of Leopardi Auto Sales on Route 51 and a north Baldwin Borough native who graduated from Baldwin High School in 1992, will not see his business relocated, as his vehicle lot is found just past the expected work zone.
Leopardi is happy with some of the project's traffic improvements and considerations—for example, the Rite Aid parking lot will still be readily accessible to enter and leave even with the jughandle implemented—but he's upset that more steps couldn't be taken to address flooding.
"They won't do anything about the flood," he said while scrolling through photos on his cellphone from July 20 of his flooded vehicle lot. "Any questions about the flood, it's not them."
When asked about other possible improvements, Leopardi, like Jedlick, said that he would like to see ramps built over the intersection to lessen time spent at stoplights.
"You're paying for it anyway by your taxes," Leopardi said. "Whether it goes to this project or another one down the street, I mean, it's money well-spent. To me, it's going to be spent anyway."
"I was pleased to see how PennDOT was able to incorporate a lot of the public feedback that was given at the last meeting (regarding this project, in 2010)," Rudiak said. "Hopefully, this will address a lot of your concerns."
"It's obviously a lot better than what we currently have," Schmotzer said, "but it still does not address the traffic problems. To do it the correct way, like the Liberty Tubes, it would cost somewhere around $100 million.
"There should be somewhat of an ease on the traffic pattern but nothing as great as the Liberty Tubes project. (Raised ramps) would just move the traffic along so much better. That truly is the ultimate bottleneck down there (at 51-88).
"But again, it's better than what we have now, and it does address the bridges for the water problems. So, I'll take it."
Schmotzer and several other meeting attendants pointed out that the 51-88 project does not extend north to nearby Maytide Avenue and Overbrook Boulevard, which often see heavy congestion, as well.
Cessna did not dismiss residents' concerns regarding those roads' intersections with Route 51 and said that improvements could be made there in the future.
"We're not saying it's never going to happen," Cessna said, "but it's not going to happen with this project."
Added Schmotzer, when asked why funds aren't available now to extend the 51-88 project, he said, "(This) is the best that we're going to get. There's no type of commitment from the state level for infrastructure. (Gov. Tom) Corbett is a caretaker governor and not a governor with vision."
Thoughts on this project as is? Are you excited about the jughandle? Would you have liked to have seen more done to address flooding? Tell us in the comments section below.
Also, CLICK HERE for valuable files from Wednesday's meeting.
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