Downtown Pittsburgh, Oakland rapid bus route urged

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Backers of a proposed Bus Rapid Transit corridor connecting Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland have adopted an ambitious timetable to advance the project.

Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development, told a board committee recently that project supporters hope to apply for federal funding next fall. That would require completion of preliminary engineering and environmental review before then, and securing all of the non-federal funding needed for construction.

That would keep the project on track for a start of service in 2017.

A preliminary estimate of the overall cost is $200 million and the project would have to prevail in a highly competitive federal grant program to move ahead, Ms. Stern said. A federal grant likely would cover only 50 percent of the cost.

The project has the backing of a wide array of local organizations, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto. Mr. Fitzgerald included $1 million in his proposed 2014 budget for preliminary engineering.

Even with that, the project is still about $2.4 million short of the funding needed to complete preliminary engineering and environmental review.

"We're looking forward to discussing the next pieces of this project with the incoming City of Pittsburgh administration early in 2014," said Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.

"It'll be important, then, for the county, city, authority and other key partners to coordinate on the next pieces of the project, which includes potential items such as signaling along city streets and other streetscape changes. This will help everyone better establish sources of funding and move through the grant application process. Otherwise, funding sources have not yet been specified."

In Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, the vehicles operate on existing roads, typically have their own lanes, are designed to resemble rail cars but with rubber tires and serve stations that are spaced farther apart than traditional bus stops. Patrons buy tickets in the stations, which have display boards showing when the next trip will arrive.

Estimated travel time from Downtown to Morewood Avenue would be just over 14 minutes, where current bus service takes 23 to 33 minutes.

Ms. Stern said project backers are hoping to build a BRT station at Fifth Avenue and Atwood Street in Oakland in the coming two years, a station that could be an asset even if the larger BRT project doesn't advance. UPMC will donate land for the facility.

Two possible alignments are under consideration for the Fifth-Forbes corridor on which the BRT system would operate. One puts buses in the curb lanes of Fifth going in both directions; the other would put one bus lane on Fifth and the other on Forbes. Officials hope to choose one in the spring.

Two alignments also are under study at the Downtown end, one that loops the buses near Steel Plaza Station and another that would send them through town to loop near Gateway Station.

A delegation of Pittsburghers, including Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Peduto and representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Sustainable Pittsburgh, toured a successful BRT system in Cleveland in June.

Cleveland officials estimated $5 billion in development has occurred or is planned along the 9.4-mile transit line. Ridership has risen by 70 percent compared with the more traditional bus service it replaced. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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