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Motorists caught in Highland Park Bridge bottleneck

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
A driver makes a last-minute merge to remain on the northbound lane of Route 28 in Sharpsburg on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

For many Alle-Kiski Valley commuters who drive Route 28 daily, the northbound Highland Park Bridge bottleneck is quite the nuisance.

Traffic has been backing up on the roughly half-mile stretch of road since September, when PennDOT opened both northbound lanes that carry traffic out of Pittsburgh.

Traffic leaving the city had been restricted to one lane since 2010.

The congestion around Exit 6 (Highland Park Bridge) is caused because motorists who don't wish to get on the bridge are forced to merge into the left lane. The right lane is used for the bridge's on ramp.

“It's something we're aware of, but it's something we'd have to look at long-term,” said Dan Cessna, PennDOT's District 11 executive. “We don't currently have any plans (to alleviate the congestion).

“When you make major changes on a highway system like this, you take a little bit of time to see what's happening. There's nothing that's immediately curable.”

Good news — bad news

Cessna said the congestion at the Highland Park Bridge should subside later this month when lane restrictions return in the area of the former St. Nicholas Church.

Again, traffic leaving the city will be confined to one lane.

“Once we finally institute northbound lane restriction, it will (slow) traffic,” he said.

While the bottleneck at the Highland Park Bridge has been frustrating for motorists, the fender-benders on the section of the road pose a more dangerous aspect.

“We are aware there continues to be more wrecks,” Cessna said. “There are actually more wrecks on the southbound side than the northbound.

“But from a safety perspective, we will look at that (Highland Park Bridge) interchange,” he said. “I drive that weekly, and it is an awareness issue. We really need to understand what types of accidents people are having and address it.”

Cessna said PennDOT's data on wrecks that have occurred on that stretch of the road in the past few months won't be available until spring.

According to state police Cpl. Christopher Robbins, there has been a significant increase in wrecks since September, compared with the same time last year.

Robbins said that from Sept. 1 to Dec. 5, 2012, there were 30 crashes. In the same time period this year, there were 44 crashes. In both instances, only a handful were DUI-related.

“It's the last part of (Route) 28 that really needs updated,” Robbins said. “It's an old road, and I'm not sure what can be done. But something needs to be done.”

Robbins said state troopers have been monitoring that area more closely.

“The problem is there's really nowhere to park a (patrol) car there,” he said. “So we normally stay a little farther south, by Etna.

“The two reasons we hear most for crashes are that people aren't paying attention or they were following too close,” Robbins said. “Anytime we get a decent wreck we send two cars, one to slow down traffic so there's not another wreck from rubber-necking.”

Robbins said that he'd like to see PennDOT put up a message board that advised drivers to be more attentive when entering the bottleneck.

“And I wish they'd put up signs telling people to move over for stopped emergency vehicles,” he said. “You don't know how many times our guys get ‘buzzed.'

“We actively enforce that, and there's a hefty fine to go along with it.”

Communities unaffected

One would think that Aspinwall and Sharpsburg, the two communities that sit under the Highland Park Bridge, would be most affected by the bottleneck, but the boroughs said they have yet to receive any complaints.

“Surprisingly, we haven't heard any complaints,” said Melissa Lang, Aspinwall's borough manager. “It's been quiet.”

Jan Barbus, Sharpsburg's borough secretary, echoed Lang's opinion.

“So far, so good,” she said. “No one's said anything to us.”

Barbus and Lang said no one has approached them with concerns the backups will affect their respective town's business district.

“It doesn't seem to be a problem,” Lang said.

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer.

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