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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Transportation Key to World-Class Pittsburgh

I love Pittsburgh. I loved it when I lived in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles and I love it even more now as a full-time resident. But one of our cityís shortcomings is the regionís failure to create a world-class public transit system.

By world-class, I mean an integrated, extensive, easy-to-use light rail system that branches out in all directions. Public transit is among the essential vitamins and minerals of healthy urban centers. Without an ability to move lots of people of every stripe all around fast and efficiently great cities cannot be great. Iím thinking of Paris, Chicago, London, New York, Boston. They need their trolleys and subways, metros and tubes or they would atrophy, and their citizens would shrivel up too. For people of all kinds to flourish in any city, they have to be mobile. Mobility is power.

Allegheny Countyís Port Authority regularly takes a lot of abuse and itís not my purpose here to heap any more on it. Actually, some recent studies show that the regionís transit system shows promise. The 2007 Urban Mobility Study found that PAT moves more than 70 million riders a year, including half of the downtown work force that makes its way in from the suburbs each day. This despite recent cutbacks in service. In 2005 this did motorists the favor of saving them more than 1.8 million hours in travel time, and transit users another $33.8 million in fuel and related costs. That ranked Pittsburgh 29th in highway savings and 37th in congestion among the nation's 85 largest cities, right around the middle of the pack.

This is all good news, but saying that transit here isnít bad isnít the same as saying itís great (and we do want to be great, donít we?).

The question is: how do we get great? For starters donít stand pat. This seems to be our current strategy. When announcements were made about the new light rail spur being built under the Allegheny to the North Shore, the Port Authority also announced that they had no additional plans to build anything else, anywhere. There was hardly been a peep about public transit in the mayoral race, and despite plan, after plan for the past 30 years, weíve made only incremental improvements. My suggestion: develop a real people-centered vision for public transit in this region and get moving.

We have a few assets to work with: Two light rail lines, for example, that run to the south and have thousands of loyal customers. Itís lopsided (we have nothing comparable running to the east, west or north), but itís upgraded and it works. Our subway is small but itís well designed, the stations are safe and user friendly, and it runs free of traffic (unlike buses) -- a nice hub if we can grow it some spokes. The spur to the North Side, maligned as it is, will soon give the city access over both the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers for the first time since the old trolley system was running in the 1960s. We will need that to build a truly extensive light rail network.

We also have Maglev, which after years of near asphyxiation, looks like it could rise from the dead. The Federal Railroad Administration has been reviewing an environmental impact statement that may position Maglev Inc. to proceed with the first 15 miles of a national demonstration project that could link downtown with the airport.

Recently a ray of political vision even emanated from Harrisburg when the governor and state legislators pounded out a compromise called Act 44 to create a fund that could feed over $400 million dedicated dollars statewide in the next 10 years into mass transit. Keep in mind this has to support 73 public transit systems, but itís a long, long trolley ride better the nothing it replaces. And it may at last stop the weeping and gnashing of teeth that emanate perennially from PATís offices around budget time.

What can we do with these assets? Here are some ideas to get the discussion started.

Low Hanging Fruit

Must every transit initiative become a mission to Mars? What if we kept projects as simple as possible; and modular so that later they can easily be connected, like Legos. Tap some of the stateís $400 million to jump-start efforts that utilize current (read low-cost) rail right-of-ways to create a transit line between Pittsburgh, Oakmont and Greensburg. A project like that would accelerate the resurrection of riverside communities from the Strip to North Versailles as well as buttress neighborhoods around the new $600 million Childrenís Hospital. A similar project could see the creation of light rail service from Station Square through Southside and Southside Works to Homesteadís Waterfront and eventually to Kennywood and McKeesport. These are no-brainers and both corridors are growing. Another possibility is to run a low-cost line through Panther Hollow that connects Oakland, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon with the high tech sector along Second Avenue. And all of these complement bike paths that already exist.

Steal from San Francisco

If youíve been to the Bay Area, you may have noticed a very cool trolley system that runs back and forth along San Franciscoís embarcadero (downtown waterfront). Nothing fancy Ė just trolleys running back and forth ferrying people as if they were in an amusement park. Letís do the same thing in Oakland, right down the middle of Fifth Avenue from Craig Street to Carlow College -- just two connected trolleys running west to east, east to west, shuttling thousands of patients, students, nurses, researchers and other professionals all around Oakland every day. This is one of Pittsburghís few true boulevards, so thereís room for a single line. Charge a 50¢ a trip to defray costs. Ask UPMC to chip in. Imagine the parking and traffic relief this would deliver.

Build the Spine Line for Godssakes

City fathers have been talking about building a subway to the east of downtown since Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Age 100 years ago. Leverage some of the state money to resurrect plans to extend the downtown subway through the Hill District into Oakland and eventually to Shadyside, Squirrell Hill and a rejuvenated East Liberty where it would link with the current busway.

The spine line is empathically not low hanging fruit. I realize this. Itíll be expensive and complex, but how can we not have a major transit line running between the cityís two largest population, business and academic centers. Oakland is vital not only to the intellectual life of Pittsburgh, but as one of the nationís largest research centers, the intellectual life of the nation. There is also the rejuvenation of the Hill District to keep in mind. And the thousands of students who live in Oakland need a proper transit system that can easily link them to downtownís stores, sports venues, growing housing and cultural venues. Enough hand wringing. This isnít a luxury. Itís a necessity.

Finally Ė MagLev, or Something

We desperately need a transit link between downtown and the airport. Every city worth its salt does. Maglev, as currently envisioned, could, some day, solve this problem. But if it doesnít, we must build light-rail line either from the South Side, through the Wabash Tunnels and parkway west corridor, or from the North Shore and down the Ohio. Whatever is easier and cheaper. The advantage of Maglev is it potentially makes the region a technology and manufacturing center for a reinvigorated rail industry. The downside is Washington politics and federal bureaucracy. But thatís always an issue.

I donít underestimate the complexity of these suggestions. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. The difference between talk and walk is the difference between Bostonís high functioning public transit system and Pittsburghís merely average one. This isnít simply about convenience. History shows that light rail systems are an investment in the future. They donít sap money (our current point of view); they create growth and improve the quality of urban life. While theyíre at it, they reduce traffic, urban sprawl, and pollution. Most importantly, they empower people, broaden their worlds, and the dreams they can dream. Ask Portland, Seattle, Washington DC, even Dallas or, for that matter, anyone in town who is looking for a more civilized way to get from point A to point B.

Note: To see County Executive Dan Onorato's proposed transportation plan, click here.

You can access the 2007 Urban Mobility Report by clicking here.

Chip Walter will be the moderator for the cityLIVE! event on July 24th on Transportation Solutions for Our Region. For more information and to register, click here.

Captions:

Transportation exhibit at the Heinz History Center

Wood Street Station lobby

Early rush hour on the parkway

Port authority bus

Under ground

Hitching a ride

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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