When Bill Peduto was elected mayor, one of the first things he proposed together with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was a new “Bus Rapid Transit” or BRT corridor through Uptown, to be completed hopefully within 3 to 4 years.
3-4 years later, and they are literally back to the drawing board, trying to earn that project’s first green light.
Little wonder: the Allegheny Conference — the city’s historic chamber-of-commerce behemoth dating back to Mayor Davey Lawrence — has in the past called it “an economic development/transformation project that happens to have transit as a component.”
Indeed, that growth focus is part of the reason BRT wasn’t universally popular. That lack of consensus may have been why it failed to earn any competitive grants the first time around.
The universities, UPMC, and the business community all love the idea of a faster, more prominent and more snazzy transit link between Oakland to Downtown. Real estate speculators have been putting off redeveloping the still-shabby Uptown district in the middle, presumably waiting for some excuse or sign of life to begin making moves. The Port Authority itself thinks BRT will get more riders on the bus, increasing fare collection.
The Downtown-Oakland corridor is already pretty well-served by our present bus lines, unlike many outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. The trip isn’t lightening fast, but 25 minutes doesn’t seem that unreasonable, and shaving up to 10 minutes doesn’t seem $250 million-style necessary. When Pittsburghers talk about transit improvements, they usually talk about restoring service cuts to outlying communities, extending that service later into the evening, disentangling Downtown from every bus trip from one part of the city to another — or extending the city’s myopic light rail system to the east. Peduto used to talk about a county ballot referendum to fund more light rail, but it’s been a long time. It seems reasonable to assume that if we set up BRT to Oakland and points east, light rail is off the table basically forever.
Then there is the “gentrification” concern. While more economic development would help the City pay its many, many bills, using public transit to spur growth is not a super look when the city has yet to enact its long-studied and discussed affordable housing strategy. It plays into what has become a certain stereotype.
Then again, the number of Pittsburghers who are more frightened of gentrification than economic stagnation is limited. And since operating and capital budgets are different things, BRT skeptics haven’t made clear what they’d prefer to buy at the same price.
Mayor Peduto obviously intends to test the lefty opposition by promoting and discussing BRT in the community smack dab in the thick of his reelection campaign. The idea seems to be to use his political resources to help popularize the project, then use his reelection (Pittsburgh mayors usually get reelected) as a mandate to prove to funders and doubters that his constituents want it.
Will it work? Last time around, they applied for these grants under President Obama. Pittsburgh is fortunate that Transporation Secretary Elaine Chao is singularly distinguished among Trump cabinet appointments as qualified to run their department and seemingly less suited to disassemble it brick by brick. But is the Trump administration any more likely to devote hundreds of millions for public transit to a Democratic mayor, a Democratic county executive and a Democratic governor? Meh. It could be we have this backwards — maybe this is a way for Peduto to create the appearance of progress during his campaign, when little is forthcoming.
Either way, Peduto and Fitzgerald could use a transit win. Their Downtown circulator or “bus free Downtown” plan was throttled in its crib, the “Envision Downtown” coalition they put together in the wake of its wreckage has been struggling over smallball, and the “Oakland Transit Connector” aka Uber PodWay through Panther Hollow seemed to die with the Smart Cities grant. Fizgerald’s whole tenure overseeing the Port Authority has been marred by upheaval.
Public transit improvements are one of the best ways for local officials to appear “transformational,” which seems to be everyone’s objective. Marrying the Mayor’s reelection campaign with this BRT proposal might be this set’s best chance yet of getting on the scoreboard.