BRT looks like the big new public works project headed down the chute for quality assurance control in this City of Champions.
“This is an economic development project,” clarifies Port Authority interim CEO Ellen McLean. “It gives us a chance to add amenities in the third biggest corridor in the state,” including “significant transit efficiency opportunities.”
In addition to the common features of bus rapid transit schemes as distinguished from conventional routes — differently designed vehicles, dedicated and separated lanes, smart signaling etc. — proponents of the project in Pittsburgh are intending to provide a host of both economic and infrastructure development benefits along the corridor between Downtown and Oakland.
“Above all we’ve learned BRT is a vehicle for community vitality as well as mobility,” says Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh, an organization which has driven the community input process thus far.
Many of the benefits will be centered around Port Authority stations where riders should be able to get in out of the weather, purchase passes, and receive real-time information on arrivals.
“We’re working with UPMC on a model station,” says McLean, at or near the corner of Atwood and 5th Ave. “A big thing for developers is the permanence of the stations.”
Stations should similarly provide development opportunities in the middle of the route, such as Uptown, but such details are yet to be determined.
Two things hold up the process in terms of providing specifics to examine before a federal grant deadline in October.
First, the Port Authority is waiting on the Peduto administration to arrive, appoint and provide direction to somebody on the project Steering Committee — which also includes the County, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Allegheny Conference and Sustainable Pittsburgh.
“Remember, this is a City project technically,” says McLean. “The financing will likely be TIF“.
In recompense for the public financing, the City is likely to seek infrastructure upgrades beyond even that which will be necessary to operate the bus rapid transit, such as bike lanes — real, raised up, separated-from-traffic bike lanes, for example.
“And you’re also opening up streets for things like water and sewer,” suggests McLean, though she clarifies she does not want to get ahead of City determinations.
Second, a preliminary engineering and environmental study is underway and set to come back with information on preferred routes, station locations, streetface design, roadway signaling, noise impacts, historic impacts and potential displacement.
It is still unknown whether BRT buses would be better off heading down Forbes and back on 5th, for example, and those determinations will have long-term effects.
There are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of unknowns that need to be known, before the project can begin to move forward. Once it begins, transformations will likely need to be taken on in stages.
The “New Starts” grants of under $250 million for transportation projects “are enormously competitive,” warns McLean. In order to win one Pittsburgh would need to bring “total commitment.”
There are a variety of concerns circulating about BRT in the public:
- It could distract the Port Authority from restoring service cuts
- It could ruin efforts to expand light rail to Oakland
- It could make the corridor impractical for automobiles
- It could bypass poor communities
- It could gentrify poor communities
- It could prove not worthwhile in terms of improved service
- It could be a Trojan horse for future privatization
Call that a mixed bag.
There are differences between operating funds and capital funds, and still others among grant money and TIF proceeds. If an organization like Port Authority is fundamentally so incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, then we may as well resign ourselves to failure in all things.
The argument about light rail is more interesting. It was perhaps most eloquently put by one of Pittsburgh greatest electronic heroes of rationality and justice: that the urge to seek BRT is symptomatic of institutional myopia and a conception of transit as a reaction to, not a driver of, economic development.
“The community has decided they want something now” after so many decades of nothing much at all, states McLean at the Port Authority.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether a completed BRT would ultimately or for all time preclude the pursuit of work on expanding light rail east. It is at least theoretically possible that BRT stations can be spaced where plans for T stations have already been drawn up; or that on that shining day when the T is permitted to grow, that BRT resources can be reprogrammed elsewhere.
Concerns about automobile traffic should be addressed in the study, McLean says, but she does not anticipate it should be an insurmountable obstacle.
“I don’t know about you, but right now you ride in the middle three lanes,” of automobile traffic in Uptown, she says — not as much the far left or the far right or left lane.
How about whether the convenience and prosperity is going to bypass the communities BRT, well, passes by?
“People believed that because BRT is coming in, we’re not going to operate that local service,” affirms McLean. But she denies that is the case. Similarly, the mere presence of the concern about gentrification raises questions about a concern over bypassing communities.
Now, in doing our own research, the Comet heard a surprising number of people simply saying transit service between Oakland and Downtown was already smooth and acceptable. Is it really worthwhile to shave 5 minutes off of a 10 minute trip?
Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie offered a critique of that anecdotal research: we were talking only to transit riders. “There are an equal number of people who don’t ride the bus, because it stops at every corner,” he argued. This is a way to grow the total ridership.
The argument about sneaky privatization, perhaps the one most terrifying to local Democrats, rests upon the suspicion that by upgrading and making distinct certain high-capacity routes, that must be the first step in marketing them to private interests. It is a hard speculation to address.
Court Gould at Sustainable Pittsburgh advises, “The on-going study process has this optimism driving the interest in ways in which BRT can extend prosperity to all in the downtown-Oakland corridor.”
Until we know the specifics of what Pittsburghers may be bringing to the table here — and given the cornucopia of infrastructural and economic life we may breath into the City center alongside an exciting new transit gateway — engaged optimism seems like the reasonable posture.
There is a school of thought in activism that if the government is conducting a study of something you do not like, you had better kill the study or else kill the project before the study comes back — or else the manipulative momentum of a rigged study will be too powerful to reverse.
That strikes the Comet as amusingly close-minded and fearful.
Now is not the time to kill Bus Rapid Transit with fire.
Now is the time to lard up the BRT proposal with all the efficiencies, amenities and pleasantries we can possibly attach to it.
The Comet’s prescription now is only that the communities BRT would directly impact be given every opportunity to forge synergistic agreements with the regional stakeholders. It should be a matter of excitement how that boils down in terms of infrastructure, economic and transportation benefits.
Even if it does not come to fruition this cycle, that work should still provide everyone mileage.