Share This Page

Squirrel Hill Tunnel workers cope with speeders, exhaust fumes

| Sunday, July 27, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Sean Sciulli, 41, of Monroeville, loads boxes of tiles onto workers' carts as they work through the early morning hours repairing the tile lining the Squirrel Hill Tunnels along Interstate 376 on Wednesday, June 23, 2014. The existing tile, which has been lining the walls since the original tunnel construction, has battled the moisture, expansion, and contraction of over 60 years on the tunnel walls.

No one escapes the tentacles of Squirrel Hill Tunnel traffic. Not even PennDOT employees.

“It's not our objective, but we're very good at it,” Bill Lester, an assistant construction manager for the tunnel's $50 million rehabilitation, joked after getting stuck in the traffic on a recent evening.

Lester coordinates the work of plumbers, carpenters and the electricians who are installing a lighting system.

It's been about 18 months since the project started. The work initially was scheduled to end last week.

Some detail-oriented work, done by hand under uncomfortable circumstances, remains.

Weather and added jobs extended the work, and PennDOT hasn't projected a completion date.

Crews removed a false ceiling, at first intending to replace it. But after reviewing repair costs, “We asked, ‘Why do we need it at all?' ” Lester said.

Though machines govern most of the tunnel's maintenance and rehab, the replacement of tiles that are 60 years old is done by hand.

The porcelain-glazed tiles are frost-proof to withstand any weather condition, said Bruce Rieffle of Massaro Industries in Oakmont, a subcontractor. Only one place in the world — in Germany — makes tiles to match the originals.

Workers inspected the concrete walls to prepare for the tiling. The process involves tapping on the walls to listen for “punk concrete,” or old concrete weakened by water and weather conditions, Lester said. It has to be extracted and replaced, and then the fresh concrete must cure for 18 days.

These workers will lay enough tile during the project to finish 3,400 average-sized kitchens. This night, that means placing 350 to 450 square feet of tile.

The crew of 22 works overnight shifts and sometimes must wait out traffic from events such as Pirates games to begin working.

But that's not the worst of the conditions in which they labor: Inside the tunnel, it's hot and muggy and smells like exhaust fumes.

Even if a car passes by at 40 mph, the wind and noise produces sensory overload. And most cars are traveling higher speeds.

That means remaining cautious at all times, watching for a car that might cross the zone marked by orange construction cones.

Rieffle has done this type of work for 33 years. He wanted to be a teacher originally.

Now, inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel at 1 a.m., he shakes his head with a half-smile as a car that sounds like it could use a new muffler speeds past.

“Welcome to my world,” he said.

Nafari Vanaski is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, at nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.