North Shore Connector more than 80 percent complete
Winston Simmonds walked briskly through puddles almost 70 feet below the surface of the Allegheny River, 11 inches of concrete separating him from bedrock and water above.
With more than 80 percent of the $528.8 million North Shore Connector complete, detail work such as water sealing, installing technical systems and testing will keep crews busy for at least 15 months.
"I think people will embrace this," said Simmonds, the Port Authority of Allegheny County's rail operations and engineering officer overseeing the project.
"Our hope is that 20, 30 years down the road, people will say, 'I don't know what the controversy was all about,' " Simmonds said during a tour of the 1.2-mile extension of the light-rail system.
Construction began almost three years ago with boring of twin tunnels under the river between Downtown and the North Shore. The project is poised to hit several milestones, with major construction work scheduled to wrap up and Downtown intersections near Gateway Center to fully reopen by next month.
The Gateway Station project affected traffic on Stanwix Street, between Liberty and Penn avenues, for three years, first with relocation of utilities and then with construction of the underground station and demolition of the old one above ground. Stanwix remains in rubble in the area, but Simmonds said it should be repaved and reopened soon. Some restrictions could occur until the project is finished.
"It's been a temporary inconvenience for the greater, long-term good. It's been challenging, but we're excited to see the final product," said Fifth Avenue Place spokeswoman Kerry Donahue. The 31-story building with the pyramidal top sits across the street from the future Gateway Station.
Finishing work remains on three stations, the rail line and overhead cables to power trains. Inner workings -- heating, ventilation and electrical work, and communications and computer equipment to control the system -- need to be completed.
About 125 gallons of water a day, on average, leak through openings at the ends to flow down the sloped tunnels, explaining puddles at the midpoint beneath the river. The tunnels can handle up to 800 gallons a day. When the ends are sealed, leaks should be minimized.
"Tunnels are not waterproof," Simmonds said, as huge ventilation fans roared. Water that gets in will be storm or groundwater, not from the river -- the tunnels are 22 feet below the Allegheny.
Each station will be distinctive. Gateway Station's glass ceiling will afford impressive views of surrounding Downtown skyscrapers; the cavernous North Side Station will be next to the parking garage on West General Robinson Street and diagonal from PNC Park; and people will board trains at Allegheny Station about 30 feet above street level, adjacent to Heinz Field, Rivers Casino and Carnegie Science Center.
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said light-rail cars will begin six months of test runs in September. The authority plans to start passenger service in March 2012.
It remains unclear how often trains will run to the North Shore or how much a ride will cost passengers. Simmonds said the authority could include the North Shore in its free-fare zone, which covers travel within Downtown, but that might not be affordable without private financial support. The authority predicts it will cost up to $1 million a year to run and maintain the extension.
The connector initially was expected to cost $435 million, but officials revised estimates several times when construction bids came in higher or lower than anticipated. The $528.8 million budget set in March appears to be holding.
"You will always have people who are going to be critical when public dollars are involved, and that's fair," Simmonds said. "But the time for that debate has passed. My job is to make sure this project is done right, on time, and on or under budget."
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