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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."

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"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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