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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Advocates call on state Rep. Dom Costa and Port Authority to drop fare-check policy proposal

Posted By on Thu, Oct 12, 2017 at 4:13 PM

Advocates march through Morningside to protest Port Authority's proposed fare-check policy - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Advocates march through Morningside to protest Port Authority's proposed fare-check policy
The Port Authority of Allegheny County is proposing a new fare-check policy on its light-rail trains, in which Port Authority police officers will be patrolling stations and cars and asking for proof of payment. If a rider fails to prove payment, officers will run the name through a background check and give the passenger a warning. Upon repeat infractions, riders can be issued criminal charges.

On Oct. 12, a group of 30 advocates marched in Morningside, requesting that state Rep. and Port Authority board member Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights) reject the fare-check proposal. Gabriel McMorland, of the social-justice advocacy group The Thomas Merton Center, has met with Port Authority officials and spoken at multiple authority board meetings about the potential harm this policy could have on vulnerable populations that often use public transit, like low-income earners, the homeless and undocumented immigrants. Before the march, McMorland said that possibility of putting someone into the criminal-justice system for failing to pay a $2.75 fare is overly punitive.

“They do not appear at all concerned about the potential dangers we brought up,” said McMorland. “We want to stand up against over-policing in this community.”

Nationwide, there are a handful of other transit-police agencies that use armed officers to enforce fare-evasions, such as in New York, Dallas and Cleveland. The policy of Cleveland's Regional Transit Authority is similar to the proposed Port Authority policy, as it makes multiple infractions of fare-evasion a criminal offense. However, recent news reports from Cleveland have highlighted flaws in the RTA system.

In September, the Cleveland Scene wrote about how some RTA transit cops believe that RTA’s fare-check policy is merely a way to generate revenue, and how citations were disproportionately targeting black riders. And in July, TV station WKYC reported how the RTA was charging teenage students with criminal offenses for failure to show their school ID, which acts as their transit pass.

At the Oct. 12 rally, Brandi Fisher, of the Alliance for Police Accountability, worried that if Port Authority were to institute this policy, a minor fare-evasion infraction could escalate, given the oft-tumultuous relationship between minorities and police officers. “Things like traffic stops and pat-downs often escalate to a place where serious things occur, like death or major injury,” said Fisher. She cited the case of Leon Ford, who was severely injured by Pittsburgh Police officers after being pulled over for running a stop sign.

Alma Brigido, the wife of deported immigrant-rights activist Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, told the crowd that this policy will likely decrease ridership among undocumented immigrants, who utilize public transportation because Pennsylvania doesn't allow them to obtain driver’s licenses. “We are obligated to use public transportation in our daily lives.”

As City Paper reported in June, undocumented immigrants could be potentially in threat of deportation with their first fare-evasion infraction. Even though the proposed Port Authority policy prohibits officers to ask for identification, authority officers will still run people’s names through a database that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has access to.

A coalition of advocacy groups surveyed local Latino transit riders and found that about 80 percent of them would stop taking the T, if the proposal were implemented. Monica Ruiz, of Latino-service organization Casa San Jose, said this is troubling because many Latino residents and many undocumented immigrants live in Beechview and other South Hills neighborhoods which the light-rail serves. Ruiz told CP she spoke to one woman who would stop taking the T if the policy were implemented, and she told Ruiz that armed officers on the light-rail would make her and her children “very afraid.”

The group of 30 marchers ended their march at the office of Costa and delivered more than 300 letters from constituents, asking Costa to oppose the proposed change.

When asked for comment on this story, Costa’s office directed CP’s request to the Port Authority. Adam Brandolph, spokesperson for the Port Authority, emailed CP  the following statement: “Interim CEO David Donahoe delayed implementation of the proposed fare policy on our light-rail system in June due to unexpected equipment issues. He has taken that time to review how other transit agencies enforce fare payment, and he has not recommended any changes thus far.”

The date for the Port Authority vote on the fare-check policy has not been determined.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris caught driving car on pedestrian path in park, upsetting constituents

Posted By on Fri, Oct 6, 2017 at 3:34 PM

Now-deleted post by North Side constituent photographing Darlene Harris as she drove by on pedestrian path - IMAGE COURTESY OF FACEBOOK
  • Image courtesy of Facebook
  • Now-deleted post by North Side constituent photographing Darlene Harris as she drove by on pedestrian path
In April, Pittsburgh City Paper reported about a video showing Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris honking at a cyclist who was obeying all traffic laws and yelling at him to “get in the damn bike lane,” when there was no bike lane to ride in. This video was from 2016, but the story ran when Harris was running for mayor.

Now, it appears Harris and her gold Jeep are drawing ire again. A now-deleted Facebook post shows a Jeep that matches the description previously reported by CP driving in the pedestrian path in Allegheny Commons Park in the North Side. The post’s author writes: “Does Darlene Harris realize it is a sidewalk not a road through our park? Apparently not since she almost ran over my stroller.”

CP reached out to the post’s author, who asked not to be included in the story, but Harris confirmed that she was driving through the park in a Oct. 5 Facebook post that reads in part: “I have received reports that some people are upset that I was using my vehicle in a park. I’m so glad that we have such vigilant citizens who are willing to report what they think is wrong, but I’m here to set the record straight. I was out on business personally investigating complaints that I had received from my residents.”

The post from the North Side resident received a lot of comments on Facebook when it was posted on Oct. 4, but was taken down relatively quickly. Still, Harris indicates in her post that people were “jumping to conclusions” when accusing her of any wrongdoing. Harris writes: “If anyone has an issue with me in the future — no matter how big or small — I invite you to contact me directly so that we can have a conversation. I have dedicated my life to public service and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. I was out serving my community and will continue to do so!”

One Harris constituent spoke to CP and was upset about Harris driving in the park.

“I am not very happy it, I live across the street from the park,” says Zandrea Ambrose, who has lived in the Mexican War Streets section of the North Side for 10 years. “It is concerning that she is driving in there. … I don't think I have ever seen a car in the park, outside of an event, or city park vehicles.”

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Allegheny County is increasing its bus riders and cyclists, but six area state reps voted to reduce transit and bike funds

Posted By on Sat, Sep 16, 2017 at 12:48 PM

West Mifflin residents celebrate the 55 bus extension, but proposed cuts could ax the route. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHANDANA CHERUKUPALLI
  • Photo courtesy of Chandana Cherukupalli
  • West Mifflin residents celebrate the 55 bus extension, but proposed cuts could ax the route.
The U.S. Census just released its 2016 estimates for commuters in Allegheny County, and the number of Pittsburghers biking and using public transit is growing. Compared to 2015, people who commute to work via public transit grew 0.8 percent, and by bicycle by 0.2 percent. (In the city of Pittsburgh, bike commuters increased by 0.9 percent).

Allegheny County is actually bucking national and statewide trends, in terms of public-transit use. The U.S. as a whole decreased its share of public-transit users by 0.1 percent from 2015 to 2016, as did the state of Pennsylvania.

But six state representatives from Allegheny County just voted for a House budget bill that proposes $50 million in cuts to public-transit funds, as well as cutting $50 million in multi-modal funds, which are used to build non-car infrastructure, including bike lanes. The representatives —
John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair), Jason Ortitay (R-South Fayette), Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth), Hal English (R-Allison Park), Mark Mustio (R-North Fayette) and Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) — all voted for the bill, and were the only Allegheny County representatives to do so. The bill passed by two votes. The only Allegheny County Republican to vote against the proposed budget was Eli Evankovich (R-Murrysville).

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pittsburgh's North Side to get protected bike lane on Allegheny Circle

Posted By on Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 3:14 PM

A protected bike-lane cycletrack on Penn Avenue, Downtown - CP PHOTO BY JAKE MYSLIWCZYK
  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
  • A protected bike-lane cycletrack on Penn Avenue, Downtown
The protected-bike-lane train keeps on rolling through Pittsburgh. Last month, City Paper reported on Oakland receiving Pittsburgh's first counter-flow, protected bike lane and other big bike-infrastructure changes coming to the student-heavy neighborhood.

Now, the North Side is the benefactor of improved bike infrastructure. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's office announced on Sept. 12, the soon-to-come installation of a cycletrack, or two-way protected bike lane, coming to Allegheny Circle, called Commons on road signs. Currently, the four-lane, one-way road loops around the former Allegheny Center, now called Nova Place. Peduto said in a press release that the road needs to be redesigned to create a "multimodal, pedestrian-friendly urban street."

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Free Wi-Fi now available at several Port Authority light-rail stations in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Mon, Aug 28, 2017 at 4:55 PM

Rich Fitzgerald at Steel Plaza station in Downtown Pittsburgh - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Rich Fitzgerald at Steel Plaza station in Downtown Pittsburgh
Light-rail riders rejoice. Waiting underground for the T will no longer include the frustration of no signal, and being unable to check your smartphone or mobile device every two minutes to see if your Facebook feed has changed.

Starting Aug. 28, seven Port Authority of Allegheny County light-rail stations will provide complimentary Wi-Fi, thanks to a partnership with internet-provider Comcast Xfinity. The stations to offer Wi-Fi are: Station Square, on the South Side; Allegheny and North Shore, on the North Side; and First Avenue, Steel Plaza, Wood Street and Gateway, all Downtown.

“This is part of continuous efforts improve our transit system,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at an Aug. 28 press conference. “[The Port Authority] continues to be connected and not be out of touch with what riders want.”

Port Authority Interim CEO David Donahoe said this technological improvement is necessary, in order to keep up with public-transit competitors. “Today we are in competition with driving, ride-hailing, and biking,” said Donahoe. “No longer do we just say, 'We are here and you have to ride us.’”

The Wi-Fi is public and open to everyone. Users just need to connect to the Xfinity Wi-Fi on their device, and then they will be prompted to register an account with Xfinity. (Current Comcast Xfinity customers can use their username and password to login.)

Comcast Xfinity spokesperson Bob Grove said Pittsburgh joins Boston, New York City and southern New Jersey as the only regions to offer free, public Wi-Fi at transit stops. Grove noted that Comcast Xfinity is considering expanding the service.

The Wi-Fi comes at no cost to Port Authority.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Why new bike lanes in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood are a big deal

Posted By on Fri, Aug 18, 2017 at 10:56 AM

New bike lanes being painted in Oakland - CP PHOTO BY JAKE MYSLIWCZYK
  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
  • New bike lanes being painted in Oakland
In 2015, when Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning went out to count the number of cyclists on city roads, four Oakland intersections saw 124 cyclists pass by per hour. By this count, Oakland is the second most bike-trafficked neighborhood; only Downtown saw more cyclists.

But for years, Oakland had been without any substantial bike infrastructure. In 2014 and 2015, bike lanes were installed on Schenley Drive, Bayard Street and Bigelow Boulevard to meet the bike demand of neighborhood residents, including thousands of college students, but a key piece was still missing.

On Forbes Avenue (between Bigelow and Craig Street) and on Bigelow Boulevard (in between Fifth and and Forbes avenues), there was nothing but space for cars. But as of Aug. 18, that has all changed. Pittsburgh has installed bike lanes on these streets, including the city’s first counter-flow bike lane on Forbes, adding another piece to the bike-infrastructure puzzle in Oakland.

“These things have been building over time,” says Kristin Saunders, the city’s bike/pedestrian coordinator. “It is really filling in those gaps.”

With the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's imminent construction of bike lanes on Forbes from Craig Street all the way into Squirrel Hill, Saunders says the cyclists will now have clear directions on how to navigate Oakland on bike infrastructure.

“It is a space where we need dedicated space for cyclists. It is the right application for this street,” says Saunders.

One of those new applications is unique to the city, but necessary since Oakland has many one-way streets for cars. Saunders says the counter-flow bike lane, which will run on the left side of Forbes Avenue from Bigelow to Bellefield, will be important to give cyclists safe passage through Oakland. But it will also help take cyclists off the sidewalk, where they are not legally allowed to ride, but often do because bike lanes were not present. The counter-flow lane will be marked by a double yellow line, and will transform that section of Forbes into a two-way street, but only for bikes.

An example of how cyclists should use a "Copenhagen" Left in Oakland. - IMAGE COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF CITY PLANNING
  • Image courtesy of Department of City Planning
  • An example of how cyclists should use a "Copenhagen" Left in Oakland.
Other new designs include bike boxes at heavily trafficked intersections that encourage riders to complete a "Copenhagen Left," a term used to describe when cyclists avoid left-turn lanes for cars and instead pass over the intersection in the right-hand lane, and then wait for an opposing green light to cross (see image). Saunders says there will also be a separate signal at some lights, so bikes don't have to cross the street at the same time as cars.

Saunders says city planning will be looking to educate the public on how to properly use the new bike infrastructure. She adds the new infrastructure will minimize conflicts between drivers and cyclists. In 2015, cyclist Susan Hicks was killed at the intersection of Forbes and Bigelow when a car crashed into a line of cars and Hicks, who was waiting to turn left onto Bigelow. The new bike infrastructure now gives cyclists an area to wait to cross over Forbes onto Bigelow that they did not have before.

The new Oakland lanes will surely have their critics (after all, two of this year’s mayoral candidates ran on anti-bike-lane messaging), who might say that not enough people bike in Oakland to deserve additional infrastructure.

But Saunders is confident demand is there and points out that criticism of bike lanes sometimes contains flawed logic. “[Oakland] streets are pretty unaccommodating right now for cyclists,” says Saunders. “If we build a system that’s not unaccommodating for cyclists, and then ask why there are no cyclists. That doesn’t really make sense.”

And below are some images of the newly installed bike lanes from our photo intern Jake Mysliwczyk.
New bike lane on Bigelow Boulevard - CP PHOTO BY JAKE MYSLIWCZYK
  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
  • New bike lane on Bigelow Boulevard
  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk
  • CP photo by Jake Mysliwczyk

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

National public-transit conference Rail-Volution coming to Pittsburgh in 2018

Posted By on Tue, Jun 20, 2017 at 2:12 PM

  • Image courtesy of
The Rail~Volution conference has been a national leader on engaging communities to improve public transportation and development centered on transit, and to create walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. For more than 20 years, it has set up shop in booming cities that have experienced decades of growth in their respective regions.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Bike-advocacy group encourages Pittsburghers to ride bikes to work on Friday

Posted By on Wed, May 17, 2017 at 4:58 PM

  • Photo courtesy of Bike Pittsburgh
Cyclists in and around the city must feel a little vindicated. In a Pittsburgh mayoral race in which candidates blamed bike lanes (which account for a minuscule fraction of the city budget) for the city’s lead-water-pipe problems, public-safety issues, and a shortage of affordable housing, the one candidate who was pro-bike-lane, Mayor Bill Peduto, emerged victorious, with about 69 percent of the vote.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bike-advocacy group survey says cyclists support driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 12:13 PM

  • Image courtesy of Bike Pittsburgh
Predicting how drivers are going to interact with cyclists on Pittsburgh roads is a fool’s game. Some drivers will slow down, provide the legally required four feet and pass cyclists without incident. Others will honk at cyclists and scream at them to get off the road, or even act negligent and crash into cyclists. It's all part of a normal commute for urban cyclists.

Because of this unpredictability, it's not all that surprising that Pittsburgh cyclists would support taking the human element out of driving, and data recently released by Bike Pittsburgh proves it. The bike- and pedestrian-advocacy organization released a survey on March 21, showing that only about 10 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members with and without experience sharing the road with driverless cars disapprove of Pittsburgh as a testing-ground for autonomous vehicles. Moreover, about 75 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members actually approve or somewhat approve of driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh. (Somewhat ironically, a recent survey of Americans with AAA coverage showed that 75 percent of drivers were afraid of fully autonomous vehicles.)

In September 2016, Uber debuted its semi-autonomous vehicles in a highly publicized event. Since then, semi-autonomous Volvo SUVs and Ford sedans have been navigating select Pittsburgh neighborhoods, with a driver ready to take over and a technician monitoring the driverless components.

The survey compiled responses from 321 Bike Pittsburgh members and about 800 non-members. About 40 percent of members said they have interacted with a driverless car either on bike or on foot (non-members have interacted with AVs slightly less on bike, but slightly more on foot).

“While our own personal experiences riding and walking alongside AVs have been mostly positive, we believe that the introduction of these vehicles to our streets deserves a larger conversation,” said Eric Boerer, BikePGH Advocacy Director, in a press release. “As far as we know, we are the first organization collecting these stories from bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Both members and non-members also said they felt safer when interacting with an autonomous vehicle, rather than with a car controlled by a driver, even if there were still some uneasiness. "People noted the lack of road rage and aggression toward them as opposed to human drivers," said the study. "However, many were not comfortable with the dehumanization of the interaction even if it ended up being safe."

But not all reports were positive, according to the press release. While most bike-riding respondents noted driverless cars gave four feet while passing, several people cited times AVs passed them only giving a few inches. Additionally, some walking survey respondents noted driverless cars didn't stop for them while waiting to cross the street, and one respondent witnessed an AV running a red light. (It should be noted that Recode recently published a story showing that while Pittsburgh has become the epicenter of semi-autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S., the driverless cars only travel an average of 0.8 miles before human drivers have to intervene.)

Regardless, respondents of the survey want Bike Pittsburgh to support AVs; 50 percent of members and 43 percent of non-members want the bike-advocacy organization to "actively support" autonomous vehicles. Only 3 percent of members and 7 percent of non-members want them to oppose AVs.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Port Authority of Allegheny County leadership quietly shaken up, advocates ask for more transparency

Posted By on Wed, Mar 8, 2017 at 5:15 PM

Port Authority bus picking up riders - CP PHOTO BY AARON WARNICK
  • CP photo by Aaron Warnick
  • Port Authority bus picking up riders
One Feb. 24, the Port Authority of Allegheny County board added a last-minute agenda item announcing that Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean’s contract would not be renewed past June. The item wasn’t listed in the board meeting’s initial agenda, and when McLean spoke earlier in the meeting, she didn’t mention her imminent departure. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in a story headlined “Port Authority forces out McLean, seeks executive with more transit experience,” that some board members didn’t know about this decision until the night before the Feb. 24 board meeting.

At the time, Port Authority board chair Bob Hurley wouldn’t elaborate on the decision to cut ties with McLean, only saying that the decision between the board and the CEO was “mutual.”

"This transit agency has come so far from where we were just a few short years ago, which is why I believe now is the right time for me to pass the torch to someone else," McLean said in a statement issued after the Feb. 24 meeting.

On March 3, a TribLive article stated that Hurley will likely leave the Port Authority board and his seat will be replaced by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s chief of staff Jennifer Liptak. Port Authority vice chair Jeffrey Letwin will likely step into the chair role. Allegheny County’s initial announcement of this shift came on March 3 and was at the end of a statement containing a laundry list of legislation that Fitzgerald had introduced to Allegheny County Council; there was no mention of Hurley departing the Port Authority Board.

On March 7, Fitzgerald nominated Hurley to serve on the county’s Airport Authority board. Fitzgerald says he wanted to see Hurley, who is also head of the county’s economic development team, on the Airport Authority because the county owns thousands of acres of developable land surrounding the airport. “The plan was always to move [Hurley] to the airport,” says Fitzgerald. “There is so much economic development opportunity there.”

However, Fitzgerald provided no comment on why Liptak would be joining the Port Authority board in the March 3 TribLive article, but told City Paper earlier today that he is confident in Liptak because “she does a good job wherever she is.”

Liptak, who Fitzgerald says will be leading the search for the new Port Authority CEO, has served in county government for years and offers a breadth of experience in budgeting and development, but with little official public-transit experience. But Fitzgerald says Liptak has been “involved in every transit decisions we make,” and she has “good relationships with all the stakeholders that deal with transit in the region.”

All of these big shifts with little public notice has made some advocates wary of the board-appointee process. Molly Nichols, of the public-transit-advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transportation, wonders why these big decisions happened so quickly and relatively quietly. She is calling for more transparency when board members are appointed.

“PPT would like to see more transparent processes for board appointments, including naming the qualifications of appointees and holding public hearings,” says Nichols. “This would give the public the opportunity to ask appointees how they plan to serve the transit riders of Allegheny County.”

This isn't the first time that Fitzgerald's handling of board appointments has come under fire. Although he has since abandoned the policy, after taking office in 2013, he required all board members to submit undated letters of resignation that Fitzgerald could activate at any time. There was also some tumult when Fitzgerald ousted PAT's former director and put his own appointees in power positions, also in 2013

Fitzgerald’s Port Authority appointees, like Liptak, don’t require any confirmation by county council or any public vetting. Hurley’s appointment does need approval by county council, but out of hundreds of Fitzgerald’s appointees, council has only failed to confirm one, a man indicted on federal embezzlement charges in 2010.

But Fitzgerald says the timing of Port Authority CEO leaving and Hurley moving boards shouldn’t be taken as upheaval at the Port Authority. He says the reason these changes were made quickly is because the authority is stable. “It is not like we have all these problems we have to make changes, it’s just the opposite,” says Fitzgerald.

In terms of increasing public participation in the appointee process, Fitzgerald believes the current system works fine as is.

“We get a lot of folks who suggest board members,” says Fitzgerald. “At the end of the day, the elected officials are given the responsibility that these agencies run well. If it doesn't run right, we are going to be the ones taking responsibility.”

This sentiment somewhat echoes a statement made by Steve Palonis, of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, after the announcement of McLean’s departure. Palonis said in the Post-Gazette, “Rich [Fitzgerald] is the guy in charge and this is what he wants to do.”

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