Future Travel: Is $200 million for Downtown-Oakland BRT the best public-transit investment? 

"We have so many communities that only have one bus per hour."

For more than 100 years, the one constant in Pittsburgh's transit history has been the desire to give public transportation the right of way ... and the inability to do it comprehensively.

A 1906 study proposed "a system of underground railways" including "a downtown loop with a radial line to the east and several intermediate stub lines extending north and across the Allegheny River."

But where rail was once seen as the way to address the competing claims buses and cars have on street traffic, Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT) is gaining momentum.

The idea behind BRT takes the philosophy of rail and applies it to the bus: fewer stops, off-board fare collection, screens that show how far away the next bus is, and separate traffic lanes with signals that give buses priority.

And the Port Authority — which was among the first to borrow some of these rail-like characteristics on the East Busway — is looking to create a BRT system in the Oakland-Downtown corridor, at an estimated cost of $200 million.

"The goal has always been to link Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh, the two largest job centers in the region," says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, an ardent supporter of BRT. The current system, he says, doesn't make people want to forgo driving.

But some worry a BRT system between Oakland and Downtown goes too far, by spending scarce capital on one of the region's most heavily served transit corridors.

"That's a lot of money to invest in that corridor for the benefits that would result," says Helen Gerhardt, a transit activist who writes for a blog called Buses Are Bridges. "We have so many communities that only have one bus per hour."

Others worry planning hasn't gone far enough, that the focus on BRT is closing off more thorough discussions about whether other corridors deserve upgrades, and whether rail should be in the mix.

The plan the Port Authority outlined last November would require converting an existing lane of either Forbes or Fifth Avenues to be "bus-only," so both inbound and outbound BRT routes would have their own right of way. (Currently, only outbound routes have their own lane through Oakland on Fifth Avenue.)

That would render the several 61 and 71 buses, which currently run through Oakland along Fifth and Forbes avenues, unnecessary in a corridor that serves about 30 percent of the region's transit ridership, Fitzgerald says. Instead, BRT could replace buses that often stack up behind each other.

BRT's advocates also point out the project could be completed in phases, gradually improving service until completion. (Port Authority is considering whether the BRT could terminate in Shadyside or Squirrel Hill.)

The project could shave travel times between Morewood Avenue near Carnegie Mellon and Downtown to just over 14 minutes. That trip currently takes between 23 and 33 minutes, according to the proposal.

But the BRT project "[isn't] just about the time," Fitzgerald says. It's about spurring development in places like Uptown, which has plenty of property close to Downtown that could be attractive to developers.

"We realized there would be a significant amount of development that will occur; property values will go up," Fitzgerald says.

Ken Zapinski, vice president of energy and infrastructure at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, agrees. "It's an economic development/transformation project that happens to have transit as a component."

He says public-private partnerships will be crucial in funding the project, especially given increasingly competitive federal funding. "We cannot use Washington and their procedures or lack of money as an excuse not to improve our transit system," Zapinski says.

And though the Port Authority is seeking federal grant money, it would likely get no more than $75 million — a reality, Fitzgerald acknowledges, that will require a "significant amount of local match."

In late 2011, Wanda Wilson joined the stakeholder group tasked with assessing whether a BRT plan should move forward, though she says BRT in the Oakland-Downtown corridor was the only transit project up for discussion.

The Allegheny Conference, Hill District Consensus Group, Pitt and CMU are among the nearly 50 organizations that have participated in the stakeholder group.

"It's a good group in terms of its makeup," says Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. But "it kind of started from [...] the assumption that bus rapid transit would be the best way to improve transit in this corridor." BRT might be the right idea, Wilson says, or the answer "might be a [rail] line that goes underground."

Members of the Uptown community have also expressed some skepticism over the value of BRT.

"Uptown hasn't had a transit problem," says Jeanne McNutt, executive director of Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh. "There are lots of buses," she says, noting the BRT could lead to significant reductions in on-street parking.

Others argue there should be a conversation about development in corridors beyond Downtown-Oakland.

Ben Samson, who designed a Pittsburgh light-rail system for his master's thesis, says it might be worth focusing on a rail project along the Allegheny River.

The Strip District and Lawrenceville both have development potential, he says, and wouldn't require tunneling underground to extend rail service.

"If they're going to all this trouble to spend $200 million to save six to nine minutes for three miles — that's a lot of investment," Samson explains.

Mavis Rainey, a former Port Authority board member and executive director of the Oakland Transportation Management Association, acknowledges that "some folks would like to look at a broader scope of ideas."

But rail, she says, has been studied in the past and just isn't feasible. "Given the financial resources right now [...] I'm still kind of surprised that there's still a conversation: 'Let's look at light rail.'"

It isn't just costs that diminish the chances a light-rail project will be part of the conversation.

There's also the political cloud left hanging over the North Shore Connector, according to Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. That project cost over half a billion dollars and drew national criticism.

"There was definitely [a] feeling among Port Authority leadership that because of just how much they were getting beat up over constant service reductions — and the cost of the North Shore Connector — that the only way they were going to get any project done here was BRT," Sandvig says. "Why we didn't build a subway to the East End during the heyday of steel is beyond me."

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie acknowledges the North Shore project's fraught political past, and stresses the importance of getting buy-in for the BRT project, saying it wouldn't go forward without community support.

"We know we can't make everyone happy," Ritchie says, "but we need to be smart about it — we haven't been in this position in a long time."

And even if BRT is no panacea, Sandvig says the area between Downtown and Oakland is ripe for transit-oriented development.

"You have a very transit-oriented corridor in terms of its built environment," Sandvig says, noting its flatness. "You have strong market forces on either end that can leverage investment."

But transit activist Gerhardt worries that communities like Greenfield or Penn Hills, which she says could use better transit options, will be left behind.

"I think we need to be looking carefully at equitable transit-oriented development," she says. "Will the most transit-dependent people be served by this location? [...] I would prefer to see that kind of investment."

But PCRG's Sandvig thinks it isn't necessarily a bad thing to use transit as a way to spur development — and convince people to ditch their cars.

Even though buses are rarely filled to capacity between Downtown and Oakland, "Is that because we don't need transit, or because we haven't done enough with the land to create demand for it?"

And to Gerhardt's concern about transit projects geared toward people who can afford to have cars in the first place, Sandvig says getting more people to ride public transit can help ensure its long-term viability.

"What makes Social Security hard to get killed by the government?" Sandvig asks. "Everybody has it."


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