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The Penn Lincoln Parkway East

In the 1920s, the main east-west highways across southern Pennsylvania -- US 22, the William Penn Highway, and US 30, the Lincoln Highway -- were generally two-lane ribbons laid across the folds between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Though much of the cross-state traffic would move to the PA Turnpike in 1940, then hailed as a Wonder of the World, the earlier highways were adequate for their rural locations. But as the routes reached metropolitan Pittsburgh, they encountered increasing traffic, cross streets and other hazards.

Various state and civic organizations determined that the best way to meet the increasing demands would be to build a modern limited access parkway similar to the famous Merritt Parkway near New York City. More than twenty-five years after the first serious discussions were begun, the first sections of the new east-west highway would open.

The first contract for preparing the plans for the new Pitt Parkway was given to Michael Baker, Jr of Pittsburgh in November, 1943. The estimated cost at the time was $20 million. As is typical, the costs were underestimated; the Squirrel Hill Tunnel alone cost $18 million.

A shortage of trained engineers, labor, and materials was incurred by the ongoing war effort. This would mark the first time the Department of Highways would subcontract its engineering to outside firms. Various parts of the project would be delayed repeatedly and short sections were opened as they were completed.

The terrain between the Parkway's junction with the old William Penn Highway at Churchill and the already developed neighborhoods of Edgewood and Swissvale made selection of that portion of the route somewhat simple. The Parkway is nearly a straight line between these points. From groundbreaking July 25, 1946 to completion in late October 1948, this section would open first.

Between Edgewood and downtown Pittsburgh, three routes would be studied. The Penn Avenue Alternate passed through Frick Park, continued through East Liberty and Bloomfield following the Pennsylvania Railroad to Grant St. The route did not offer an acceptable outlet to the west and would have incurred great costs in property damage.

The Fifth Avenue Alternate passed through the central portions of Frick Park and Schenley Park before paralleling Fifth Avenue into downtown. This would have indeed been a Parkway. The western outlet into downtown would have been near the Court House -- also offering no connection to the proposed Parkway West.

The route chosen now seems obvious as the best choice. It skirts the southern edges of Frick Park and Schenley Park without damaging either. The most expensive project ever undertaken to that time by the PA Department of Highways would be the Squirrel Hill Tunnel; although motorists would come to curse the tunnel and its constricting effect, it would make the rest of the route viable. Cutting into hillsides to avoid Second Avenue and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroads, the new Parkway would connect with the new Fort Pitt Blvd. The latter multi-level street had been suggested by planner Robert Moses to relieve downtown congestion and was built to replace Water St along the Monongahela River.

The relocation of the B&O Railroad's downtown terminal and the construction of the downtown interchange at Grant St would delay the completion of the Parkway until 1958. Within two years, the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel would be opened to link to the Penn-Lincoln Parkway West which had been under construction through the 1950s.

The original design specifications allowed horizontal curves of no more than four degrees, a maximum grade of five percent and a design speed of 60 miles per hour. The five percent grades would prove to be as dangerous as necessary. The Wilkinsburg hill in the east and Green Tree Hill in the west, each with curves adding to the complexity, are infamous in contributing to truck accidents.

Easier access encouraged increased usage. The region east of the Parkway's eastern terminus experienced tremendous growth. Monroeville built up rapidly around the 1941 three-lane rebuilding of a new William Penn Highway (expanded to five lanes in 1957) and the extension of the PA Turnpike to Ohio in 1952. A four lane bypass, with two additional lanes to later consume its original grassy median, was built around Monroeville in 1961-62. With the completion of the interchange at Rodi Rd in Penn Hills, the Parkway East was now linked to the Turnpike and provided an all limited access highway route from downtown Pittsburgh far to the eastern regions of Pennsylvania.

The Penn-Lincoln Parkway would quickly become overloaded and outdated. Short ramps, inadequate lanes, narrow shoulders -- the problems were many. And the constricted right-of-way has made significant improvements difficult. The entire length of the original highway between downtown and Churchill was rebuilt in stages throughout the 1980s. The resulting traffic nightmares became legend and served to prove that even a limited Parkway was better than no limited access highway at all

As the Parkway approached its 50th anniversary, the updates were primarily technological: electronic message boards, traffic monitoring systems, radio-dispatched emergency service vehicles, AM-FM radio antennae in the tunnels. The geometry of the highway -- a lack of adequate lanes -- remains substantially as it was built a half century ago. But for the greatest percentage of east-west traffic in metro Pittsburgh, the Penn-Lincoln Parkway is the only way to get from here to there.

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Last modified: 07-Aug-2001