Pittsburgh's East Busway rapid transit system ranks 'bronze'

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Backers of a planned rapid bus corridor from Downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland are hoping to gain momentum from international recognition of the city's existing busway network.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which evaluates and rates buses-only corridors around the world, conferred a bronze ranking on Port Authority's Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, one of only four U.S. systems getting the designation.

The only U.S. busway with a higher rating was Cleveland's Health Line, which earned silver status. Twelve busways in China, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Mexico got the highest rating, gold.

ITDP, based in New York City, advises cities on best practices in an emerging concept known as Bus Rapid Transit, which adopts characteristics of rail service but can be developed at a fraction of the cost of subways or light-rail lines.

The institute decided to develop an intricate rating system, similar to the LEED program for rating buildings for environmental excellence, CEO Walter Hook said at a ceremony at the East Busway on Wednesday.

"The public was getting confused. They didn't know exactly what BRT was," he said.

The ratings are based on nearly 40 categories including the location and configuration of stations, intersections, vehicles and lanes, how fares are collected and how frequently service operates.

BRT systems typically have reserved lanes, stations that are spaced farther apart than stops on typical bus lines and longer vehicles, some of which vaguely resemble trains. Facing funding shortages that rule out more expensive rail development, cities are clamoring to build BRT systems, which are up to 20 times less expensive, Mr. Hook said.

Early estimate of the cost of a Downtown-to-Oakland BRT is $200 million, or about one-tenth of what a Light Rail Transit extension to Oakland would cost, said Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development.

Annie Weinstock, the ITDP's U.S. director, said the East Busway earned points for having lanes dedicated to buses only, passing lanes at stations, multiple routes operating on it and a high frequency of service, particularly during peak times.

It could be improved with off-board fare collection, stations that are more protected from the weather, platform-level boarding and bike lanes, bike sharing stations and better pedestrian access, she said.

Pittsburgh has three of only seven true Bus Rapid Transit systems in the U.S., she said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the East Busway was a catalyst in the redevelopment of East Liberty, and that developers and companies "want to be located along our busways."

He will lead a local delegation that will visit Cleveland's Health Line next month. The 9.2-mile system has been credited with stimulating billions of dollars in development.

"BRT around the world is shown to be a catalyst for new development and redevelopment," said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh and head of a coalition of 40 local organizations that back Downtown-to-Oakland BRT.

An advisory committee is studying five options for alignment of the system through the Forbes-Fifth avenue corridor and hopes to have a preferred alignment by fall, Ms. Stern said.

That would be followed by environmental review and an application for federal funding for final design, she said. "At this point, the goal is to get something operating in 2016."

There also was a bit of intriguing news for bicyclists at the Wednesday ceremony: Mr. Fitzgerald revealed that the Port Authority is considering adding a bike lane to the East Busway, an idea the agency previously had rejected as being unsafe.

neigh_city - Transportation

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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