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Monday, January 16, 2012

After slow start, can bus rapid transit get rolling?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Discussions of bus rapid transit have been in the works since at least 2010 and community groups are ready to take the next step.

Last Thursday, Get There PGH, a coalition of more than 30 community groups, began the public input process to get feedback on a proposed bus rapid transit plan for Pittsburgh.

Bus Rapid Transit, as the Port Authority describes it, is a "high-quality bus service that offers the limited stops and faster service of rail, but with the flexibility and lower capital costs associated with buses." It features many elements of rail: more direct and streamlined service, simpler route structure, dedicated lanes and real-time data at stops.

The initiative was born out of a 2010 forum on BRT that found a "groundswell of support in the community" for the effort, says Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh who presented Thursday's meeting. "This is the community saying to Port Authority, let's get on with it."

The Port Authority contracted Parsons Brinckerhoff to study offering BRT in Downtown, Uptown, the Hill District, Oakland and the city's eastern neighborhoods. But Gould stresses that the proposal is "not a predetermined plan. The public has to decide what they want."

The area being studied for the feature makes up a large portion of Port Authority's ridership, says Darryl Phillips with Parsons Brinckerhoff. The Oakland core alone has 46,000 daily riders -- mostly via the 61 and 71 bus routes -- accounting for 20 percent of the system's total ridership. The rest of the corridor routes have 78,000 daily riders, and, combined with Oakland, account for 33 percent of the system's ridership.

Those same areas, Phillips says, are also poised for significant growth in employment and population by 2040.

"The question is how do you accommodate that growth?" he says. "People need options for getting around."

Dedicated bus lanes in Pittsburgh aren't anything new. In fact, Phillips points out that the Port Authority was one of the first in the country to develop dedicated transit space with the Martin Luther King Busway and West Busway. And because BRT is a flexible technology, Phillips says such an endeavor doesn't have to be a "billion-dollar project that you have to build all of it or none of it. It's what you can afford." Considering the Port Authority's longstanding fiscal challenges, that's an important factor.

BRT has also spurred economic development in other cities. Cleveland's transit developments, through its HealthLine and other initiatives, have been credited for almost $5 billion new economic growth.

"Port Authority innovated [bus rapid transit] domestically," says Gould. "Other cities innovated it and took it farther and decided that instead of [transit] being a separate, fenced in thing, they guided it into the fabric of the community."

About 100 people turned out for the first of Thursday's two forums which featured a brief presentation on BRT and discussions with riders about their needs. Phillips said more meetings are on the horizon, and feedback is being accepted online.

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