Bus-free Downtown Pittsburgh core on hold

Project to reroute transit will wait for new mayor

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A project to reroute buses in Downtown Pittsburgh, moving them away from the center of town, goes back to March 2012, when the Port Authority quietly amended a contract to include a study of how that might be done.

The agreement with consulting company Parsons Brinckerhoff was amended without being brought to the authority's board of directors for a public vote. The amendment set forth a detailed plan for analyzing how routes might be realigned, and it created a steering committee of Port Authority, local government and business interests to guide the work.

The committee has met several times without making much progress toward identifying a practical way to get buses out of the center of the Golden Triangle, and the initiative has been put on hold until a new mayor, presumably Democratic nominee Bill Peduto, takes office in January.

Until last week, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story about it, most riders and transit advocates were unaware of the project, which is supported by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mr. Peduto.

Parsons Brinckerhoff was retained by the authority board in a public vote in July 2011 to oversee planning and design for a proposed Bus Rapid Transit corridor linking Downtown and Oakland, at a cost not to exceed $1.5 million. The March 2012 amendment adding a Downtown bus realignment study did not push the contract amount over the limit, so it didn't require a separate public vote, authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said.

The steering committee has representatives from the Port Authority, city and county governments, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

The contract calls for a larger advisory committee that would have representatives of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Downtown Neighborhood Association, Allegheny County Transit Council (an advisory panel made up of riders) and the Committee for Accessible Transportation.

But that committee has not been established or invited to participate thus far, meaning there has been no formal input from riders or advocates for the disabled in the early deliberations.

Nor have neighborhood groups been invited to the table, a fact that didn't sit well with Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

"Bus circulation in Downtown has a huge impact on bus service in the neighborhoods," he said. "Neighborhoods and riders really need to be a part of this discussion. We've got to have a much more open process."

Pittsburghers for Public Transit, a group that claims about 6,000 transit riders as supporters, also objected to the private nature of the deliberations and issued a statement saying the elimination of buses in the Downtown core puts the interests of a few businesses ahead of "the greater good of the entire community."

"I think there were a lot of people who were blindsided by this," said Helen Gerhardt, a community organizer with the group. "We're going to make sure that we are very vocal and very involved every step of the way."

Mr. Fitzgerald responded by saying that the public would have the opportunity to participate in the route realignment. "It's very early in the process. ... I think people are getting the wrong idea that this is going to happen imminently and they'll have no input," he said.

He also denied that the proposal is being driven primarily by business owners, saying it "has huge support across all sectors -- riders, people who work in town, a cross-section of people."

Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the goal of the project is to improve service, including providing more comfortable places for people to wait for their buses, rather than simply forcing buses and riders out of the heart of town. He said 90 percent of the partnership staff, including himself, are bus riders.

The steering committee has looked at a plan that would put most buses on a perimeter made up of the Boulevard of the Allies, Grant Street, Liberty Avenue and Stanwix Street, with a bus corridor maintained on Fifth Avenue, bisecting the perimeter. But that appears unworkable because of the sheer volume of Downtown bus traffic -- 2,600 trips per day, enough to create almost a bumper-to-bumper line of buses on the perimeter during rush hours.

Also under examination is a plan to have buses make shorter loops after entering Downtown, turning around after a block or two and heading back out. In the current route system, most buses cross a large portion of the Golden Triangle before turning around.

The consultant has been directed to gather information about the possible creation of additional bus-only lanes Downtown, and giving buses traffic-signal priority at some intersections.

"Areas where larger sidewalks or open areas could serve as enhanced bus stops and transfer points will also be identified," the contract states.

One official familiar with the project, who declined to be identified, said it will be difficult to develop a plan that efficiently relocates buses away from the center of Downtown without a loss of convenience to riders -- longer walks to and from bus stops and/or the need to transfer to a second bus or the Light Rail Transit system to reach their destinations.

Mr. Fitzgerald has acknowledged that some riders might have to walk farther. "Bus service into Downtown Pittsburgh is not going to be a door-to-door operation. You may have to walk a couple of blocks. Downtown is very walkable," he said.

Mr. Peduto, for his part, insists that a circulator plan could be developed that puts all bus riders within three blocks of their destination, actually improving access compared with the current system.

"It's extremely complex," Mr. Waldrup said. "Ultimately, trade-offs are going to have to be made. I'm confident that we're going to find a solution that works for people and encourages ridership. Losing ridership is not an option."

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. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM


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