While much of PennDOT has transitioned to remote operations, some critical operations have to continue work in the field to keep the motoring public safe. District 11's Tunnel Maintenance Organization is one of those areas that is essential to PennDOT and the City of Pittsburgh.
Tunnel employees have continued to staff the Fort Pitt, Squirrel Hill, and Liberty Tunnels 24/7 since the COVID-19 crisis began. The duties performed by tunnel employees include responding to traffic incidents inside the tunnels and on Interstate 376, I-279, I-579 and other associated highways, performing necessary maintenance of electrical systems and mechanical ventilation systems, monitor tunnel conditions for fire, carbon monoxide and over height vehicles, and staff the I-279 Freeway Service Patrol. Tunnel employees have to be able to respond to inside the tunnels quickly, as a few minutes can be the difference between life and death for motorists if a serious incident were to occur. Maintaining safe conditions inside the tunnels is critical to movement of people and goods into and out of the City of Pittsburgh. If these conditions couldn't be maintained, major routes from the west, east, and south would have to be closed off and paralyze the city. Employees are also being vigilant in social distancing and cleaning common areas and equipment to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While traffic has been considerably lighter since the Stay-at-Home Order for Allegheny County was put in place by Governor Wolf, tunnel staff have been needed to provide assistance to motorists in need by changing tires, towing disabled vehicles, and protect first responders at incident scenes. The lighter traffic volume has caused higher vehicle speeds approaching incident scenes, making tunnel crash trucks even more critical for protecting tunnel staff and first responders. One particularly moving incident last week was when an 8-year old boy walked into the inbound tube of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and hid inside one of the cross passages. Tunnel Maintainers Al Csorba and Greg Cox found him and got him to safety with help from Aaron Dancho and Supervisor Scott Johnson. Had tunnel staff not been there this incident may have turned out very differently.
Additionally, tunnel staff cleared debris that was covering inlets on the Fort Pitt Bridge and Greentree Hill that were causing water to pond on I-376 during heavy rains on a weekend morning. Tunnel staff were there at night when the Monongahela River rose quickly and the sluice gates needed to be closed to prevent I-376 from flooding. The Tunnel Maintenance Organization is critical to keeping the public safe and essential in keeping the roads open.
We are very thankful for these caring tunnel employees in District 11, as well as all of our field staff working days and nights to keep our roadways safe and secure for the traveling public, health care workers, truck drivers and other essential employees throughout Pennsylvania.