March 7, 1939: Liberty Tubes come to life
The arrival of the age of the automobile nearly a century ago prompted local leaders to improve transportation to the growing South Hills.
In 1919, Allegheny County commissioners decided to bore twin tubes through the base of Mt. Washington to create the Liberty Tunnels. The project cost $6 million. In today’s dollars, that figure would be $82 million.
When they opened in 1924, the Liberty Tunnels were the longest auto tunnels in the world. Each tunnel is more than 5,000 feet long and 26 feet wide. About 400,000 cubic yards of earth and rock were excavated to build them.
The Liberty Tunnels (a lot of us call them the Liberty Tubes) were hailed as a boon to South Hills residents who no longer had to detour around the city but could drive directly to Downtown. Even horse-drawn vehicles were allowed to use the tunnels but were finally banned in 1932. That same year, about 25,000 cars passed through the tunnels daily. By 2000, that figure had risen to more than 63,000 vehicles each day.
The Liberty Bridge, which cost $3.4 million, opened in 1928.
In a 1975 article published in The Pittsburgh Press, transportation reporter Joe Grata observed that the Liberty Tunnels were “inadequate, dangerous and obsolete almost from the first day cars and horses passed through them.”
The tunnels underwent a $7.2 million rehabilitation in 1975. The road bed was widened by one foot to 22 feet and about 3,000 fluorescent lights were installed in each tunnel.
This year, motorists have watched the fourth phase of renovations, a project that began in 2008. This fourth phase, which costs $18.8 million, will restore the entry facades at both ends to very much how they looked when the tunnels opened in 1924. The tunnels’ interiors will be finished in a washable white surface.
(Top photograph: New lights and tile were added to the tubes in 1939. Photo credit: Unknown)
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