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Retro Metro

Some better ideas for cool -- and actually useful -- streetcars



When mayoral candidate Bob O'Connor proposed building traditional streetcar lines from Downtown to Oakland three weeks ago, it was the South Side that gave his plan some traction.



Laura Beres of the South Side Local Development Corporation says a South Side business owner e-mailed the group that very same week, saying, "We should get in line for that."


In many ways, the South Side would be a better place for streetcars, at least of the type O'Connor proposed. But that's not the only place where "retro transit" could be great for Pittsburgh -- as long as we could scrounge up the money. If there's anything that draws dollars in Pittsburgh, it's Grade-A nostalgia.


Of course, O'Connor's idea is groovy but dumb (see CP News Briefs, "A Desire Named Streetcar," March 9). He suggested running streetcar track from Downtown to Oakland, pretty much along the same route -- Fifth and Forbes avenues -- already plied by eight city buses. Unlike the South Hills's light rail, which has a lot of dedicated right-of-way, streetcars have to compete with car traffic, just as buses do. Streetcars don't even use the same kind of track as the T, so riders would still have to transfer Downtown.


The Portland, Ore., streetcar O'Connor thinks he's thinking of isn't a high-volume crosstown commuter, as a Downtown-to-Oakland route would have to be. Portland's system is designed to attract people to a trendy downtown redevelopment -- a modern version of the old trick that brought people on trolleys to Kennywood.


Like Kennywood, the best use for streetcars today is tourism and entertainment. Sorry, folks: Improving a real commuter route -- like Downtown-to-Oakland -- means real investments in efficiency, like the old Spine Line idea for East End light rail revived by mayoral candidates Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb.


Except for a slight drinking problem, the South Side's done well. Laura Beres says that Station Square is the city's biggest first-day tourist attraction -- partly due to another form of retro transit, the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines. And yet, Station Square is an island. A visitor wouldn't know that an even bigger and more vibrant neighborhood, the main South Side Flats business district, is just 10 blocks away. Yet walking those blocks means dealing with cars driving like kamikaze pinballs on Carson, or making your way to quieter Bingham Street via the attractive Hooter's parking lot and the back end of a gas station. Catching a 51 bus at the T station is an option, but not obvious to visitors. And on weekends, when people are doing touristy things, the buses run less frequently.


Even less inviting is the stretch of Carson from Station Square to the Duquesne Incline. Visitors go up the Monongahela Incline, promenade along Grandview Avenue, ride down the Duquesne ... and land in a barren gravel lot.


Another useful job for a streetcar -- and the one that most mimics the Portland model -- would be to connect the sparkly new North Shore development with the North Side's historic heart on East Ohio Street and around the Allegheny Commons. A streetcar line could also help bridge the gap between Downtown and the Strip. A Downtown conventioneer could stop her Strip-ward stroll at the dark, dripping, grimy train underpass at 11th Street, unless she knows to keep going. There are buses, but, again, non-obvious and sporadic on weekends. In the Strip, there's even space for a streetcar, either on wide Smallman Street or on some of the land now sitting under parking lots.


Restoring the incline from the Hill down to the Strip, as a group of Carnegie Mellon students have proposed, would be exceedingly useful for shopping-deprived Hill residents. Plus it would create another instant tourist attraction.


When Portland gets a load of our retro transit, they'll run scuttling back to the future, dropping their iPods on the way.

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