Fast lane: Pittsburgh should plan for a top-notch BRT

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Relief for bus riders, finally, in the congested Downtown-to-Oakland corridor may be coming in the form of Pittsburgh’s own Bus Rapid Transit system.

Backers of a $200 million, 4-mile fast route are pushing for completion of preliminary engineering and environmental studies so that an application for federal funds can be submitted next fall. That’s good news for a plan that could deliver some of the benefits of light-rail service through a rapid-bus system built for a fraction of the cost.

BRT, which is already working or under development in cities as diverse as Cleveland, Kansas City, Boston, Phoenix, Miami and Hartford, uses sleek, rubber-tire vehicles that resemble light-rail cars on existing roads. Transit stops are farther apart and the express buses move in designated lanes, cutting travel time.

The envisioned Oakland-Downtown BRT would use either the two curb lanes on Fifth Avenue or one lane each on Fifth and Forbes, with the hope of taking riders from the Golden Triangle to Morewood Avenue in a little over 14 minutes, instead of up to 33 minutes.

While more details will emerge in the preliminary studies on the shape and impact of a BRT system for Pittsburgh, planners must focus on ways to attract passengers if the new mode of transit is to be a success.

• Electric vehicles should be considered for the new system. They are far quieter than conventional diesel-engine buses and may even reduce fuel costs. It’s even possible that a local electric utility might partner with the Post Authority in installing the system that powers the BRT.

• Raised platforms, like those for light-rail and subway passengers, are used by some systems to simulate riding a train and are the point where fares are paid, enabling customers to move more quickly into their seats on the bus.

• BRT vehicles in some cities get priority through traffic signals over cars and trucks at intersections, shaving even more time off a commute.

At this early stage, there is no telling how much money can be raised for an Oakland-Downtown BRT system and what sort of features it would contain. But Pittsburgh should not do it on the cheap if intends to do it at all.

The more attractive and the more efficient the transit program is, the greater the benefit for its passengers, the greater the opportunity for adjacent development and the greater the system’s chance of overall success.

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