Riders of Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s light rail system can expect service disruptions for the next five years as the agency completes a series of improvements expected to cost about $150 million.

The projects that begin next month range from the routine (replacing rails and tracks) to the ambitious (rehabilitating the Panhandle Bridge that carries trains from the South Side across the Monongahela River to Downtown Pittsburgh and upgrading stations at Station Square, Dormont Junction and Belasco).

Many of the projects will be completed under separate contracts, authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said, but the agency wanted to group them together for planning purposes because they will be done sequentially through 2028.

The projects will cause various levels of disruption, including complete shutdown of parts of the system, beginning next month. The agency will have a community meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at St. Catherine of Siena Church on Broadway Avenue, Beechview, followed by an online session at 4 p.m. April 2, to outline all the projects.

The agency also has been distributing flyers at light rail stops and on trains to help inform the public about the projects. That will continue as each project begins.

Ridership on the light rail system has been slower to recover than bus routes since the pandemic, and the agency’s long-range plan calls for evaluating the far end of the system in Library to decide whether it is worth continuing. Brandolph stressed that these projects have nothing to do with that and must be done to maintain the system.

“These are projects that have to be done every 20 or 30 or 40 years, and they are all coming up at once,” he said. “If we don’t put this money into the system, we won’t have a system. These are state-of-good-repair projects that have to be done.”

The agency already has funds for many of the projects and will continue to seek federal assistance for those not funded yet, such as the station work.

The first project actually is a continuation of work PRT crews already are doing to upgrade track in the tunnels in Downtown Pittsburgh. Repairs to the plinth, the concrete beam that holds the rails, has been done occasionally on weekends and overnight for nearly two years, but it is taking “entirely too long,” Brandolph said.

Beginning April 5 after the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home opener, the light rail system will close between Steel Plaza and Gateway stations until May 30. To accommodate riders, PRT will run inbound trains to the normally closed Penn Station and operate shuttle buses to Gateway Station, where passengers can either walk to their destination or board trains to the North Side.  

The system will operate in reverse for riders who start on the North Side, with shuttles available to Penn Station from Gateway, and then transfers for those who want to continue to the South Hills.

There will be no shuttles on four days — May 4, 5, 18 and 19 — due to special events in Downtown Pittsburgh such as the Pittsburgh Marathon.

After May 30, the Downtown tunnel work will continue on weekends through the summer. Another multi-week closure is expected next year to complete the work.  

Work also will be done in suburban communities to replace tracks, causing rail cars to use a single track through the work areas. From May 17 to June 15, crews will work between St. Anne and Willow stations to lay new tracks at Willow Street, followed by June 16 to July 14 between Overbrook Junction and Dormont Junction while crews work at Alfred Street.

The most disruptive track project will be the full closure from June 16 to Aug. 31 of the Red Line between Overbrook Junction to South Hills Junction for a variety of track projects. During that time, the remaining trains will be known as the Blue Line.

PTR will take several steps to accommodate riders.

First, it will create two new temporary bus routes. The 42 Potomac will operate every 30 minutes (every 20 minutes during 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. rush hours) between Potomac Station and Station Square via Route 19, and the 37 Castle Shannon will run every 30 minutes from Castle Shannon Station to Station Square via Castle Shannon Boulevard and Route 19.

Also, PRT will run a rail shuttle between Dormont Junction and Overbrook Junction to allow riders at Overbrook to transfer to the Blue Line at Willow to either go inbound to Downtown Pittsburgh or outbound to South Hills Village.

“We want to get as many projects done as we can while the tracks are closed,” Brandolph said.

Next year, work will shift to replacing rail inside the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, which will be closed to trains and buses for several months. That will cause rail cars and buses to run through Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, trains on normally closed tracks and buses on city streets with exact schedules announced at that time.

In 2026, the Mt. Lebanon Transit Tunnel will be closed for track replacement. Detours will be announced later.

The most expensive project will be upgrading the Panhandle Bridge, the 1.2-mile former railroad bridge that carries light rail vehicles from Station Square to the First Avenue Station, Downtown.

The 120-year-old bridge has been rated in fair condition since 2004, one step above poor, and hasn’t had major work since the light rail system opened in the early 1980s. Beginning in 2026, it is scheduled for an estimated $68 million project that will include improvements to its substructure and masonry, tracks, lights and electrical work, as well as a paint job to preserve its steel.

That project is expected to take about 30 months. Designers are trying to stage the project so that most of the work can be done while maintaining one lane of rail traffic, but some work might have to be done during short-term closures.

The agency has part of the money and has applied for federal money to pay for the rest of the project. CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman has said previously that the agency would borrow money for that project if it had to.

Station work also is expected near the end of the schedule, but no definite time has been set. Designs on all three should be finished by the end of the year.

The agency has funding for the $7 million Belasco project, which will build raised platforms on each side of Broadway Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Work hasn’t been scheduled yet because of the other projects.

The Station Square work proposes to combine the light rail, bus and Monongahela Incline stations into one combined station that serves all three modes. In Dormont, the plans would rearrange the site and use excess space for as many as three office buildings.

The agency doesn’t have full funding for those projects yet.

“[All of] these projects are an important investment in our region’s future,” Kelleman said in a news release. “By fortifying our light-rail system, we’re building a stronger, safer and more reliable foundation for years to come.”

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.