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Alcosan eyes Buncher-owned North Side properties for regional tunnel system

By Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

First Published January 30, 2023, 5:00am

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The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is acquiring more land as part of its effort to build a regional tunnel system designed to curb the amount of sewage-polluted stormwater that flows into local rivers.

Alcosan’s board of directors last week authorized the purchase of a series of Buncher Company properties needed for the tunnels, a key component of a massive $2 billion-plus Clean Water Plan.

The properties are located on the North Side between Progress and Canal streets near the Veterans Bridge. They involve about 47 tax parcels in all.

Joseph Vallarian, Alcosan spokesman, said the acquisitions are still being negotiated with Buncher.

“This purchase, as with the other properties we’ve acquired, are all instrumental in the construction of our new Regional Tunnel System. As designs progress for this new infrastructure, we will continue to identify and purchase properties as needed to further the project and the Clean Water Plan,” he stated in an email.

The new system involves the construction of about 16 miles of tunnels 15 to 18 feet in diameter buried more than 150 feet below the surface.

At roughly 5.4 miles long, the second-largest segment will run along the Allegheny River from the North Side to Highland Park bordering Aspinwall.

Another leg, the longest at 5.7 miles, will be built along the Ohio River from the Alcosan treatment plant through parts of the North Side and North Shore, with a segment jutting into McKees Rocks. The third tunnel, at 5.3 miles in length, will run predominantly along the Monongahela River from the South Side to the vicinity of West Homestead.

The tunnel system “will allow Alcosan to capture and move more flow to the treatment plant during wet weather, thereby lessening what is overflowed into the rivers,” Mr. Vallarian said.

According to the authority, the new system will result in a 70% reduction in wet weather overflow volumes in a typical year.

In all, the tunnels, in conjunction with a plant expansion and other parts of the Clean Water Plan, are expected to cut overflows by about 7 billion gallons annually by 2036 when the entire system is to be in place.

Current plans call for the Ohio River tunnel to be built first, with construction planned to begin in 2025 and to be completed in 2029.

The Buncher properties aren’t the only ones Alcosan needs for the initiative. Mr. Vallarian said that as design for the infrastructure advances, “we will continue to identify and purchase properties as needed to further the project and the Clean Water Plan.”

David Heaton, Buncher Company president and CEO, said the firm has been involved in “productive discussions” with Alcosan over the North Side parcels it owns.

“We’re trying to work in good faith to find something that works for everybody,” he said.

Buncher’s preference would have been to keep the parcels in its real estate portfolio for future development, he noted.

But since the ownership of the Buncher Company shifted to six nonprofits more than a decade ago, “we’re trying to strike a balance between getting reasonable returns for our property and being good neighbors.”

“We didn’t want to be obstinate and hold up their project,” he said.

Mr. Heaton declined to discuss a possible purchase price for the land, which totals about 3.5 acres in all. Likewise, the action approved by the Alcosan board did not include a purchase amount.

Nonetheless, Mr. Heaton added the two sides are working to come to terms.

“We think it’s an important regional project that really overall supports the Western Pennsylvania community,” he said.

Even if the proposed sale is completed, Buncher will still retain ownership of some properties along the Allegheny River south of Progress Street, Mr. Heaton said.