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Retailers brace for bridge work

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

Officials say they hope most of the 40,000-plus motorists who use the Homestead Grays Bridge daily now will find alternate routes to The Waterfront once the span undergoes repairs. Two options are the Glenwood Bridge in the city's Hazelwood section and the Rankin Bridge in the surburban borough.

Squirrel Hill residents and shoppers at The Waterfront are cringing at the thought of the spring start of a two-year rehabilitation of the Homestead Grays Bridge.

The estimated $30 million project greatly would improve the crumbling Monongahela River span owned by Allegheny County, but squeezing the 40,000-plus motorists who travel the four-lane bridge daily into just two lanes could spell trouble.

"It's going to be a big problem," said Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields, a Democrat who represents the part of Squirrel Hill that includes the 68-year-old bridge, once known as the Homestead High-Level Bridge.

Shields' concerns are for Squirrel Hill residents who already endure heavy traffic, largely attributed to The Waterfront -- the booming shopping center on the other side of the bridge in Homestead. Many motorists exit the Parkway East at the Squirrel Hill exit, travel on Beechwood Boulevard and then down Brown's Hill Road to the bridge, which has an exit at The Waterfront.

"There will be huge traffic problems," said Fred Reginella, the city's director of engineering and construction. "That's a problem every day of the week, including the midday hours, from the Parkway to Homestead."

Shields said he will discuss his concerns, which include emergency-response routes, with the county's Department of Public Works before work begins in the spring. The project is expected to last through 2006.

Managers of businesses at The Waterfront said they will feel the brunt of the bridge project.

About 70 percent of Mitchell's Fish Market customers live in the Squirrel Hill area and must cross the bridge to reach the popular restaurant, said General Manager Eric Clark. Neighboring businesses, said Clark, have told him they anticipate a 30 to 40 percent loss in business during the project.

"We hope our management company provides maps to highlight different routes," Clark said. "Certainly, the work is not going to help us."

Squirrel Hill business owners, though, said they aren't so concerned because most of their customers don't need to cross the Homestead Grays Bridge.

"I think it's going to affect people going out of here more, like if someone was going to The Waterfront," said Joel Sigal, owner of Littles Shoes on Forbes Avenue and head of the Squirrel Hill Professional & Business Association. "I don't think we have that problem."

The bridge is in poor condition and was last rehabilitated in 1979, said Don Killmeyer, deputy director of engineering at the county's Public Works Department.

He said the project includes repairing steel; widening the driving surface by 3 feet on each side; replacing sidewalks; replacing historic lighting and railings; and repainting the light-blue bridge in a light-gray hue.

The bridge was known as the Homestead High-Level Bridge until 2002, when it was renamed after the Homestead Grays Negro League baseball team.

Eighty percent of the project will be paid for with federal highway dollars, 15 percent by PennDOT and 5 percent by the county.

The nearest alternate river crossings are the Glenwood Bridge in Hazelwood and the Rankin Bridge north of The Waterfront.

The county completed rehabilitation of the Glenwood Bridge in 2001 and plans to work on the Rankin Bridge in 2007, after work on the Homestead bridge is completed. After the Rankin project, the W.D. Mansfield Memorial Bridge in McKeesport will be improved.

"We're working our way up the river," Killmeyer said.

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