Port Authority hopes to bring rapid bus transit to East End

Routes would have exclusive travel lanes, fewer stops

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Having concluded there is little hope of extending light-rail service to Oakland, the Port Authority is trying to marshal support for major improvements to bus routes.

The agency on Monday held an all-day forum on Bus Rapid Transit, a concept that takes characteristics of rail and applies them to buses -- including fewer stops, exclusive travel lanes and stations with off-board fare collection and other passenger amenities.

After more than 100 years of talk and studies about a rail connection from Downtown to Oakland, such a project remains cost-prohibitive, Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said.

"I haven't seen any study of rail service to Oakland where the cost doesn't begin with a B (for billion)," he told representatives of about two dozen government and community organizations at the forum, held at Duquesne University.

"Let's be honest. The chances of that happening in the lifetime of anyone here are pretty slim."

The authority has designated routes for Rapid Bus development to Wilkinsburg, Braddock, McKeesport, Homestead, East Liberty, Highland Park, Point Breeze, Homewood and Pittsburgh International Airport.

The Downtown-Oakland-East End sector has nearly one-fourth of the authority's ridership.

The express service would operate along the Fifth Avenue corridor between Downtown and Oakland, with stations that feature off-board fare payment and display boards showing the next bus arrival time.

Mr. Bland said Monday's forum was the first step toward building support for the plan among government officials, business owners and community groups.

"If you don't have partnerships and collaboration and consensus, you don't have a project," he said. "If this ends up being a Port Authority project, we're finished."

He also acknowledged that he had "no idea when any of this stuff would happen."

The authority's application for $80.7 million in federal economic stimulus funds for Rapid Bus development was turned down this year, and the agency is planning a 35 percent cut in service in January unless it gets state help with a $47 million projected budget deficit.

Mr. Bland said one advantage of Rapid Bus is that it can be developed incrementally as funding becomes available. "We don't have to wait 10 years to get all the money and seven years to build the system," he said.

Panelists at the forum cited obstacles, including narrow rights of way and the need to preserve on-street parking for retail businesses, that could restrict the development of bus-only lanes.

Rapid Bus has been successful in building ridership and stimulating development in several other cities.

In Cleveland, the 7.7-mile HealthLine, which cost $200 million, has helped to spur more than $4 billion in development in the city's Euclid Avenue corridor, according to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

The system has extra-long silver buses that carry up to 100 passengers and operate in dedicated lanes with separate traffic signals that give them priority over cars.

Passengers pay their fares at 58 stations along the route, before boarding. The service operates around-the-clock, and LED message boards in the stations show the arrival time of the next bus.

The service reduced a formerly 30-minute ride to 18 minutes and boosted ridership nearly 50 percent.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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