Keep the public in public transit

Pittsburgh need more say in improving our bus and rail lines

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In November, after years of effort on the part of many, we were told that Pennsylvania finally had approved a state transportation bill that would provide sustainable, dedicated funding for our roads, bridges and public-transit systems. This was cause for celebration, especially in Allegheny County, which has been wracked by Port Authority service reductions and fare increases in recent years.

But, while we may no longer face the immediate threat of more cutbacks, there are other transit challenges to tackle. This victory should give us the motivation to push for expanded and improved service.

We members of Pittsburghers for Public Transit are transit riders, workers and supporters who advocate for reliable, affordable and adequate public transit — transit that meets the needs of all communities, with no communities left out. And the truth is, many of our neighbors remain underserved.

Residents around the metro area, from Baldwin to Troy Hill, Morningside to Penn Hills, are still struggling from the impacts of the last rounds of cuts: Transit-reliant workers lost crucial commuting service, some people actually had to move to retain access to transportation, many community-college students find it almost impossible to get a degree without a car, and some community members face difficulties getting to doctors or grocery stores or religious services due to zero or greatly reduced weekend service.

The recent passage of the transportation bill shows how community involvement can improve public policy. Now we need to take this lesson to heart and build on the momentum we’ve gained to work together toward a public transit system that is more sustainable, accessible and better reflects the needs of all residents.

To make that happen, our communities must have a meaningful voice in public-planning processes, and our transit workers, who have expertise and know how the system actually operates, also need to be an integral part of public transit decision-making.

Public-transit planning must be more democratic and inclusive, more bottom-up and responsive to the community at large. This need became especially apparent when plans for a “bus-free Downtown” recently surfaced and were fortunately withdrawn in the face of a prompt and strong public outcry. It quickly became clear how many people rely on Downtown buses to get to work and various services.

The need for public input remains pressing as planning moves forward on a Bus Rapid Transit plan in Pittsburgh. Developing a BRT line from Downtown to Oakland would require a substantial multimillion-dollar investment in infrastructure, so it is important to know where the funding would come from and whether this would be the best possible use of it.

A BRT line might contribute to development of surrounding communities, especially Uptown. But many people are concerned that this might benefit outside business developers rather than existing residents and businesses. We urge that more attention be paid to the concerns and possible negative impacts of development on the people who currently live there.

For instance, increased property values tend to drive up taxes and displace long-time residents. If the project goes forward, we must ensure that the people most affected will have their views represented.

Many of us favor more efficient and environmentally friendly transit, and BRT very well may improve efficiency in a much-traveled corridor. However, it also begs the questions: Would a BRT line improve service only for those who already are best served by our transit system? In what ways would it expand service to underserved areas or satisfy the immediate needs of those communities who remain affected by recent slashes to service? Is saving nine minutes of commute time worth $200 million?

There has been talk of restoring some service lost in previous rounds of cuts. But, again, it raises questions about who gets to determine which routes are to be restored and when.

We would like to see riders and drivers take a more active role in these decisions and believe it would be a big step forward in this regard to establish community and labor representation on the Port Authority board. What better way to help ensure the organization’s accountability to the residents of our region?

In coming months, we at Pittsburghers for Public Transit will be working with other community organizations and local decision-makers to address these questions and try to make public-planning processes more democratic and inclusive. We invite everyone to participate in thinking through how we can best improve public input in transportation decisions.

Only when city and county officials, the Port Authority and the people of Allegheny County work together can we ensure the best transit system for our region.

Alicia Williamson and Molly Nichols are members of Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s Coordinating Committee (

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