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Monongahela Incline out of service for 10th time since Nov. overhaul

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 11:05 p.m.
The Monongahela Incline is temporary closed for repairs on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is closed.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Monongahela Incline is temporary closed for repairs on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is closed.
Paris Wellons, 26, of Mt. Washington and his daughter Parisia Wellons, 4, get off of a Monongahela Incline shuttle bus along Grandview Avenue near the incline station Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is shut down for repairs.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Paris Wellons, 26, of Mt. Washington and his daughter Parisia Wellons, 4, get off of a Monongahela Incline shuttle bus along Grandview Avenue near the incline station Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is shut down for repairs.
The Monongahela Incline is temporary closed for repairs on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is closed.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Monongahela Incline is temporary closed for repairs on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Shuttle buses are available for public transportation while the incline is closed.

Sonny Berry wished he could have his morning coffee and cigarette outside Buca di Beppo after his usual ride down the Monongahela Incline — billed as the country's longest-operating funicular railway that, these days, often is not operating.

Instead, Berry spent a misty Tuesday morning waiting aboard a Port Authority bus atop Mt. Washington. Time ticked away before he needed to clock in at the Station Square restaurant where he works as a server.

“I'm beyond pissed,” said Berry, 32, who most days rides the Mon Incline to work and then back up to Mt. Washington, where he has lived for two years. “I have a car, so I could drive to work. But I take the incline because it's cheaper.

“But it keeps breaking down, so it makes me kind of not want to take it anymore. It's pretty inconvenient.”

Port Authority of Allegheny County officials shut down the Mon Incline on Monday and kept it closed Tuesday. It will remain closed at least through Wednesday, the Port Authority said.

Mostly to blame is mechanical failure related to automated doors installed as part of a $3.5 million overhaul that closed the incline in September for most of three months.

Workers also replaced rail ties and renovated passenger cars, a catwalk and a safety restraint system.

The incline has shut down 10 times since it reopened Nov. 18.

Eight of those closures were because of the doors, said agency spokesman Adam Brandolph. Maintenance to change cables caused two service interruptions, he said.

“We are getting the work completed,” Brandolph said. “We want to have it done as soon as possible but not make a quick fix that leaves something behind.”

The newly installed door system charges on direct power at the stations on Grandview Boulevard on Mt. Washington and on East Carson Street at Station Square. During the 635-foot ride between the stations, the system runs on battery power.

The problem is that the charging time at the stations does not fully replace the power used by the batteries.

“We can start in the mornings, and it works fine,” Brandolph said. “But by 3 or 4 o'clock, it starts to have problems.”

The Mon Incline runs from 5:30 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays and holidays, service starts at 7 a.m.

About 2,000 people a day, on average, ride the Mon Incline from Sunday through Friday, with about 3,500 riders on Saturdays.

Full-fare rides are $2.50 each way.

Interruptions have lasted from a few hours to several days — including an eight-day closure Dec. 11-18.

In addition to the doors, the computer operating system failed to receive signals from 10 switches that tell it to slow and stop cars approaching the stations, Brandolph said. The problem has not caused any accidents.

Workers with Interstate Equipment Corp. of Pittsburgh are disassembling the switches and fixing them, Brandolph said.

Work on each switch takes about two hours, he said.

Once completed, all 10 switches will be calibrated and tested before the incline reopens.

Mark McNally, general manager of the Duquesne Incline at the other end of Mt. Washington, said he interrupted service out of caution following a landslide in 2014 and for a state-mandated brake inspection in 2013.

As for a maintenance problem causing a shut down?

“I honestly can't tell you the last time that was,” said McNally, who has worked at the Duquesne Incline since the 1970s.

The Duquesne Incline, which has been operated by a nonprofit group since 1963, opened in 1877.

The Mon Incline opened seven years earlier. It has been owned and operated by the Port Authority since 1964.

The Duquesne Incline attracted about 640,000 riders last year — receiving a boost from the Mon Incline's three-month renovation, McNally said.

About 75 percent of those riders were tourists, he said.

The Port Authority had 814,000 riders in 2014, its last full year, but does not track the percentage of tourists versus daily riders, Brandolph said.

Howard Todd owns DiFiore's Ice Cream Delite and Grandview Brew coffeehouse in the Shiloh Street business district. He said he doesn't count how many tourists ride the Mon Incline but said they account for about 95 percent of his business.

Frequent and prolonged closures are bad for business, he said.

“It's the same issues all over, and they don't know how to fix it,” said Todd. “It's ridiculous. There is no more time for excuses.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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