Oakland-to-Downtown transit proposal a slow starter in city

So far, the journey toward a Bus Rapid Transit system linking Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland has been a slow ride.

A Port Authority consultant proposed the idea more than five years ago. The authority hired a second consultant to begin analyzing route alternatives three years ago. Since then, only a tiny piece of the work needed to make the project a reality has been completed.

The project gained a bit of momentum Tuesday, when the authority board, at a special meeting, amended its capital budget to add $1.56 million in funding for preliminary engineering and environmental review. Still, the project remains miles from fruition, so much so that the agency’s chairman, Robert Hurley, could not offer a prediction about when construction could start.

“I would like to see it go a little faster,” said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who supported the budget amendment. “I could probably say that about a lot of projects in government.”

The project would create a subway-like bus system in the Forbes and Fifth avenue corridor with enhanced stations and special vehicles. Several metropolitan areas have embraced Bus Rapid Transit as a more affordable alternative to subway construction. A BRT system has several attributes of a rail line, including reserved lanes, off-board fare collection, priority at traffic signals and stations that are farther apart than traditional bus stops.

The board’‍s action on Tuesday, combined with about $440,000 previously committed and a $1 million grant from Allegheny County, gives the project $3 million of the $4 million it needs to complete the early studies.

That would position the city, county and Port Authority to seek federal funding for final design, an application the parties hope to make in August 2016, Mr. Hurley said.

The federal programs funding Bus Rapid Transit projects are competitive and are unlikely to finance more than half of the ultimate construction cost, which for the Pittsburgh project has been estimated at $200 million. It is possible that private investment also will be sought, Mr. Hurley said.

A consultant that was hired to overhaul the entire Port Authority route system recommended in 2009 that rapid bus service be implemented on 10 routes. In 2010, then-county executive Dan Onorato issued an international appeal for private investors who would be willing to develop a Downtown-to-Oakland transit line, but that initiative went nowhere.

In 2011, with a wide array of business, education, civic and government leaders in consensus that a Downtown-Oakland BRT project should be pursued, the authority retained PB Americas Inc., later retitled as Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., for $1.5 million to perform the alternatives analysis and environmental review.

The work was more or less stopped in its tracks when city government, under embattled former mayor Luke Ravenstahl, stopped cooperating, Mr. Fitzgerald said. From the start, authority officials have stressed that the project would not succeed without full participation of the city and county governments.

“City planning is a huge part of what must happen,” he said. “Now we have a mayor, Mayor [Bill] Peduto, who is engaged and very supportive.”

Mr. Fitzgerald said it is likely the county will draw another $1 million from its tax on poured alcoholic drinks to fill the remaining gap in funding for preliminary engineering and environmental review.

The project continues to enjoy strong support from all sectors of the community, he said. It will stimulate development of the blighted Uptown corridor, provide a better connection to Downtown for the students at Oakland universities, ease traffic congestion and lift property values in Downtown and Oakland, he said. “You’ll have an ability to get back and forth very quickly and very reliably without getting into your car.”

With Tuesday’‍s action and the new city administration, “I think [the project] is going to move a little faster,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces. I think you’‍ll see them start to come together.”

The money shifted to BRT came from a line item for painting and repair of a bridge carrying the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway over North Braddock Avenue in Homewood, but that project will not be delayed, Mr. Hurley said. “We’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1868 or on Twitter @pgtraffic. First Published July 15, 2014 12:00 AM

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