Transit experts unveil recommendations for city

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A panel of experts told transit officials and the public Friday that the future of transportation in Pittsburgh must focus on customer service, advancements in technology and, if Port Authority can swing it, really cool bus shelters.

The group commissioned by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Land Institute presented these and several other recommendations during a presentation at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. The findings were based on nearly 80 interviews with public officials, neighborhood leaders and others. It also included tours of the bus and rail systems.

Among the issues studied were a possible Bus Rapid Transit corridor between Downtown and Oakland, transit-oriented development elsewhere in the system and funding sources for transit.

Panelists stressed the importance of technology, including real-time route updates and mobile platforms to appeal to millennial riders. Across the next few years, the authority plans to implement specific, real-time information about service problems via Twitter, text message, display screens and other means for rail and bus riders, a spokesman said this week.

Panel chair Dave Leininger, chief financial officer for Dallas Area Rapid Transit in Texas, said contemporary bus shelters can also enhance the rider experience.

"The only thing it doesn't do is pour wine," he said of a bus shelter in Florence, Italy, that shows the time and route sequence on a digital display.

Other recommendations included expanding Park and Ride lots and improving pedestrian and bike access to stops and stations. Even less-urgent matters, if addressed, can make a notable difference, the group said. William G. Lashbrook III, senior vice president for PNC Real Estate Finance in East Brunswick, N.J., suggested simplifying zone bus fares -- and noted that no sign is posted saying light rail transit is free Downtown.

Areas in which the authority needs the greatest improvement include customer service and on-time performance, Mr. Leininger said, adding that buses arriving too early are actually a greater problem than late arrivals.

"That's a result of route planning and not updating your route schedule planning to whatever the traffic circumstances are. It's no surprise that they would encounter that with the kind of abrupt reduction of services they went through," he said after the presentation.

Panelists, some with their own Pittsburgh connections, noted some positives, too. For one, riders have faced fare increases and service cuts for more than a decade, but ridership didn't drop precipitously, Mr. Leininger said.

Act 89 -- the transportation funding plan approved last year by the state Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett -- will provide more than enough money to eliminate the authority's projected budget deficits.

But the experts pointed out that it won't cover significant new additions or restore service cuts, and the authority must find "regional, home-grown solutions" to raise funds. One example is charging $2 a day for parking at Port Authority lots, which would bring in $3 million a year.

Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean called the presentation "a great launching pad" for the transit agency.

"Overall, it hit the nail on the head on many, many points," she said. "It falls in line with where we're heading and what we want to do."

The weeklong visit cost $125,000. Co-sponsors Pennsylvania Community Infrastructure & Tourism Fund, the Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership donated a combined $61,000, and Allegheny Conference paid for a kick-off dinner on Sunday, authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said.

Molly Born: or 412-263-1944. First Published May 16, 2014 5:26 PM

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