Getting Around in the 24-Hour City

Two powerful politicians are teaming up to improve your commute.




Photos by Chuck Beard
 

 

Imagine commuting to downtown from East Liberty via the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway — not on a bus but on your bike.

Or sipping a latte at a patio table in the middle of Smithfield Street, where a noisy, smelly parade of cars, trucks and buses has been replaced by boutiques and shade trees.

Or boarding a comfy bus for an express trip to the heart of Oakland during the afternoon rush.

They’re all unique ideas Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and new Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto are spinning into a forward-looking 21st-century transportation plan.

All aboard?

“We’re pulling in the same direction,” says Fitzgerald, as he discusses the critical role of transportation goals he and Peduto have mapped out — plans that are part of a shared vision for a vibrant, flourishing metropolitan region. Adapting old, borrowed and new concepts to improve mobility is key to that vision, which, as sketched out by both men, is punctuated with such terms as “world-class,” “24-hour city” and “cosmopolitan.”

Even before Peduto took office Jan. 6, the region’s two most powerful political leaders were collaborating on plans for such ambitious projects as the rail-like Bus Rapid Transit line connecting downtown and Oakland. That state-of-the-art system would give designated buses priority on streets and provide the catalyst to re-energize the Fifth-Forbes corridor.

Another proposal on their drawing board would establish bicycle-only lanes on existing busways to satisfy the interests of an expanding demographic.

“With a shared commitment of the business community, the ‘med-ed’ institutions, the labor unions, the new mayor and local, county, state and federal officials, real change is coming,” says Fitzgerald.

The county’s top boss led a local delegation of civic and business leaders to Cleveland last year to study that city’s 9-mile Bus Rapid Transit line that he and Peduto aspire to replicate here. Since then, he and Peduto have been working with a broad base of support for that project and others.

Clearly, Fitzgerald is the engineer and Peduto, a close political ally, is his conductor — helping to open doors and trying to keep things on schedule as the city bolsters a reputation as a destination for everyone from foodies and young families to technophiles and startup entrepreneurs.

The surge of focus on transportation comes as the Port Authority of Allegheny County reaches the half-century mark. It was March 1, 1964, when the newly formed public agency began carrying riders after the acquisition and consolidation of 33 privately owned bus companies, inclines and the now-defunct Pittsburgh Railways Co. streetcar system.

“The 21st century is not going to wait for us to catch up,” says Peduto. “We talk about separate projects, but they’re all intended to fit together as critical infrastructure to build out Pittsburgh. The goal is to reconnect for a new economy.”

That business climate is what makes both old-school and new-wave proposals so appealing to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. The group represents the owners and operators of office, retail, restaurant, entertainment and residential developments — the very people who already have spent billions on Pittsburgh and are investing more in the city’s future.

“Having them [Fitzgerald and Peduto] working hand-in-hand on transportation improvements is the only way to be successful,” says PDP Executive Director Jeremy Waldrup. “Right now, once you hop a bridge and arrive downtown, good luck.”

Public transportation’s importance in and around Pittsburgh cannot be overstated. Roughly 50 percent of downtown’s workforce and 25 percent of Oakland’s use public transportation. Those neighborhoods rank as No. 2 and No. 3 among Pennsylvania’s centers for transit ridership, which helps to ease congestion in a city typically singled out in studies for having some of the most commuter-choked roads in the United States. On an average weekday, the Port Authority provides 230,000 bus, light-rail, incline and paratransit rides. As the region evolves, would-be and actual transplants from cities with extensive public transportation systems expect to find and use comparable service here. The aim of new political leadership is to implement changes that will make it easier for everyone to get around.

Waldrup continues, “We look forward to participating in making the city more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, getting traffic in and out of town easier, better accommodating public transit . . . creating a positive experience for everyone.”

Arguably more than in any other area of county government, Fitzgerald has demonstrated an ability to flex political muscle to enact transportation changes in his first two years in office. He convinced the Port Authority’s biggest employee union to accept a contract with $60 million in concessions, thereby heading off a record 35-percent cut in transit service. He orchestrated the firing of Port Authority CEO Steve Bland for resisting his recommendations and supported legislation that restructured the authority’s Board of Directors. He crossed political lines and joined Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to lobby for passage of a $2.3 billion transportation bill expected to provide enough money to sustain the Port Authority for the next 10 years and stabilize fares.

For those and other transportation initiatives, hundreds of people have jumped aboard Fitzgerald’s train, including a delegation of 70 business, government and community leaders who in 2013 joined him to visit Cleveland’s Bus Rapid Transit HealthLine.

Representatives of the PDP, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh City Council, the Benedum Foundation, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development toured the HealthLine that uses buses resembling light-rail cars traveling on dedicated lanes to connect downtown Cleveland to arts, medical and university centers to the east. Officials there credit the project as the catalyst for $5 billion in development in place or in progress along Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue corridor.

Pittsburgh’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit line would be about 4 miles long and built on Fifth or Forbes Avenue, or both. The federal government would pay 50 percent of the estimated $200 million cost, with the rest coming from the state, county and stakeholders who would benefit most — mainly the same mix of arts, medical and educational institutions benefiting from Cleveland’s BRT.

Calling the BRT line a priority, Fitzgerald and Peduto say they’d like to see it in place within five years — although hewing to that timeline may be easier said than done, given bureaucratic hurdles and competition for scarce federal transit dollars meant for big-ticket capital improvements. Pittsburgh’s BRT line would trump longstanding dreams of building a light-rail “Spine Line” linking downtown and Oakland, which today would cost a whopping $2 billion.

“While I wish the Port Authority would have done light-rail back in the ’90s when it had an opportunity, a BRT can fulfill the goal and be accomplished in one-tenth of the time and at one-tenth of the cost,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s an efficient form of transit. It meets the needs of a growing region . . . of a dynamic young work force moving here in big numbers [that is] concerned about quality-of-life issues.”

GetTherePGH, a collaboration of more than 30 planners, educators, civic leaders, nonprofits, hospitals, neighborhood groups and others, is pushing BRT, declaring on its website, “For the sake of the community and local economy, we can’t afford not to implement Bus Rapid Transit.”

In its 50-year history, the Port Authority has achieved major successes. Among them: rebuilding light-rail to the South Hills; a downtown subway and, more recently, the T extension to the North Shore; busways running east, west and south; suburban park-and-ride lots; contra-flow lanes; and an ACCESS paratransit system that is a national template.

In the foreseeable future, however, it is unlikely to partner in initiatives that have been attempted and abandoned in past years — some would call them pie-in-the-sky — such as an automated, rubber-tire Skybus people mover or magnetically levitated (Maglev) trains reaching 240 mph en route to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Fitzgerald and Peduto favor more affordable projects, and their visions jive on most plans — some but not all involving the Port Authority. They foresee newly tapped revenue sources such as naming rights, transit-oriented development and public-private partnerships to supplement conventional government resources. The fact that Fitzgerald lobbied strongly last year in Harrisburg for passage of the new $2.3 billion-a-year transportation-funding bill did not go unnoticed. His support likely puts him in position to “cash in” on the transit portion earmarked for capital improvements.

Among other potential projects:

Smithfield Street
The narrow, old city street slicing north-south through the Golden Triangle would see cars, on-street parking and contra-flow bus lanes replaced with a pedestrian/bike-friendly passage featuring retail shops, patios, trees, shrubs, a new streetscape and limited access for transit vehicles. Peduto says he would offer tax breaks to developers such as PNC Bank, Millcraft Industries and Oxford Development Co. in exchange for transforming blocks they occupy into a “grand boulevard” scheme. “If you simply build a beautiful building and Smithfield still looks like Smithfield, how does that help anyone?” the new mayor asks.

PDP’s Waldrup, himself a daily bus rider, envisions Smithfield becoming one of the city’s strongest retail centers. The street is a “tired corridor ripe for development,” he says. “It has all the components. We have property owners putting their money where their mouth is.”

Almono Line
Fitzgerald and Peduto aspire to create an intra-city short-line passenger service using modern, self-propelled railcars not unlike the Port Authority’s classic PATrain that once traveled part of the same CSX line to and from the Mon Valley. The service would link Lawrenceville, Oakland and the ambitious new ALMONO brownfield development in Hazelwood on tracks that traverse Oakland through a tunnel and through Panther Hollow.

Officials foresee four stations, including Forbes and Morewood near the Carnegie Museums, and two parking garages. The Allegheny Valley Railroad, being evaluated for a separate suburban commuter rail project, might tie in.

“Lawrenceville is a hot neighborhood,” says Fitzgerald. “A decade ago, who would have thought houses there would be selling for $300,000? It’s happening in other parts of the city where the population is changing, like East Liberty. We’re seeing an influx of people, young people, with good jobs, money and a desire to get around by means other than a car. We have to rethink and re-engineer our transportation system.”

Bicycle Freeways
Neither Fitzgerald nor Peduto ride a bike, but they both recognize a need to sustain gains made to accommodate members of the X, Y and Z generations who seek healthy, alternative transportation options. Peduto says he may use fines paid by motorists snared by 20 new red-light traffic cameras to cover the cost of barriers between bus and new bike lanes on Port Authority busways. The lanes would be integrated into a “bicycle freeway system,” taking cyclists off the busiest, most-dangerous city streets while making travel safer for all users.

BikePGH, a grassroots organization, envisions bikeways and walkways connecting professional, commercial, recreational and cultural destinations, including achieving “gold status” as a Bicycle-Friendly Community by 2020.

Downtown Bus Loops
An outcry occurs anytime the Port Authority messes with bus routes and stops. That was the case last fall when Fitzgerald and Peduto voiced support for changes downtown that they say would improve bus service in the city’s center without making buses inconvenient, as some riders fear.

“Bill and I never wanted to keep buses out of downtown. That’s a misunderstanding,” says Fitzgerald. “We have to strike a balance” with parking, cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians on narrow streets laid out long ago and in a convoluted fashion.

“I can’t imagine taking buses off of Liberty or Penn, but I can see taking buses off of certain stretches of streets, like at Market Square,” he says. “It enabled that landmark area to become a fantastic environment for people to go day and night, to enjoy dynamic changes.”

John Smith, 77, of Banksville, a lifetime transit rider and charter member of the Port Authority’s volunteer Citizens Advisory Panel, says the idea has merit. In the past, he says, the authority “short-looped” South Hills streetcars via Fourth Avenue. “People could get in or out of town in 15 minutes as opposed to up to an hour on the regular route” that ran the length of Wood and Smithfield streets.

Peduto pledges any new bus circulation system will be data-driven, and stops will be within three blocks of most destinations. Public and private space would be used to create awning-covered, architecturally compatible mini-stations. “We’ll go through a community-input process, but let’s not expect what we have can never be improved,” he says. “Streets are made for everyone.”

Traffic Signals
Pittsburgh spent $8 million in the 1990s on an automated, high-tech downtown traffic-signal control system. Several years ago, it spent millions more for an update. That system never has been fully activated.

Peduto and Fitzgerald say they will seek help from Carnegie Mellon University researchers to extend cutting-edge technology for “smart” traffic signals that already have improved traffic flow at nine intersections in East Liberty. Baum Boulevard and Centre Avenue are next, then Penn Avenue to the east, providing an “intelligent transportation corridor” between Wilkinsburg and downtown via Bigelow Boulevard.

Transit Regionalization
The region’s planning agency, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, is studying the feasibility of weaving all or some of a dozen other public-transit agencies in 10 counties into the Port Authority, if not by merger then for mutually beneficial shared operations. Buses from outlying counties now cannot pick up or drop off within Allegheny County other than downtown. Buses from remote points make 130 weekday trips in and out of downtown, “running full into the city in the morning and pushing air returning home, and the opposite in afternoon,” says Peduto. “If they could pick up people inside Allegheny County, taxpayers would save money and service would be better for all riders.”

And after all that? Fitzgerald and Peduto have more projects in mind: real-time bus/trolley tracking systems; expanding special-event and off-peak service; reviving “Ultra-Violet Loop” buses to the South Side entertainment district; a public bike-sharing system; groundwork for extending the T light-rail system to the outer edges of the county; and transit-related development in Castle Shannon, Beechview and South Hills Village similar to that spawned by the North Shore Connector, among other ideas.

Fitzgerald emphasizes that “this isn’t all about [Peduto and himself] deciding everything” but about a transportation vision for the region — one that can be achieved only through a “new” Port Authority, stakeholders and constituents. “We’re all in this together,” he says.

Port Authority Highs and Lows

After 50 years in public operation, the Port Authority of Allegheny County has experienced myriad successes as well as failures. Pittsburgh Magazine brings you a look back at the transit agency’s history:
 

Highs

≠ Downtown subway: Pittsburgh approved a $6 million bond issue in 1919 and $26 million in 1926 to build a subway. Disagreements led to the abandonment of those plans by 1932. More than a half-century later, the Port Authority got the job done, taking the last trolleys off downtown streets, purchasing modern light-rail vehicles and changing the city’s character for new generations.

≠ Busways: Starting with the South Busway in 1977, 18.5 miles of exclusive, bus-only roads that also run east and west have been added. Buses travel the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s 6-mile-long, reversible HOV lanes on Interstate 279 to northern suburbs.

≠ Park-n-Rides: Fifty free park-and-ride lots with 9,000 spaces provide suburbanites with a low-cost option to ride public transit rather than driving on crowded roads and paying high parking charges.

≠ North Shore Connector: Many weren’t happy about spending $523 million for a 1.2-mile-long T extension via twin tunnels bored under the Allegheny River. But since it opened in 2012, the service has gained acceptance and served as a catalyst for more than $1 billion in public/private investments where a sea of parking lots once existed.
 

Lows

≠ Wabash Tunnel: The transit agency remodeled the one-time railroad tunnel for Skybus — which foundered due to public opposition and lack of funding — only to tear out its unused concrete guideway 25 years later. A planned bridge extending from the north end and crossing the Monongahela River was never built and the West Busway project was truncated, so the hard-luck Wabash has never become a transit gateway to downtown. Today, it’s an under-used HOV facility.

≠ Dedicated funding: Almost from its start, the Port Authority unsuccessfully sought predictable, dedicated operating subsidies from state government. While lawmakers threw it some proverbial bones, such as taxes on car rentals, tire sales and utilities in 1992, sufficient dedicated funding from Harrisburg eluded the transit agency until last year. The passage of that transportation bill is expected to provide financial stability over the next decade.

≠ Ultraviolet Loop Buses: A variety of public, private and foundation partners funded the special weekend buses aimed at serving young people out for revelry at night spots around the city. After two years of modest yet promising ridership and an end of stakeholder subsidies, the Port Authority pulled the plug — some believe prematurely — thereby adding to parking, traffic and access problems.

≠ South Hills Village Garage: Since its opening in May 2005, critics have characterized the 2,200-space, $24 million building next to the light-rail station as a “white elephant.” For good reason: On a typical weekday, the 7-story, nondescript building sits half-empty.


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