Leading Mon-Fayette Expressway supporter changes lanes

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A longtime proponent of the Mon-Fayette Expressway has given up hope that it will ever be built into Pittsburgh, offering an alternative that would put high-occupancy vehicles on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway instead.

Joseph Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, has lobbied for years in favor of the expressway, which at present runs for about 60 miles from Interstate 68 in West Virginia to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills.

Plans, long stuck on the drawing board, call for a two-pronged northern extension, with one leg connecting to the Parkway East in Monroeville and the other going into Pittsburgh at Oakland.

Most observers, including state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, have essentially written off the Pittsburgh leg as too problematic and expensive. And now, Mr. Kirk, perhaps the most outspoken supporter of the expressway, has joined them.

Even a $2.5 billion transportation funding bill that passed the state Senate but died in the House last month would not have had sufficient money to finance the expressway into Pittsburgh, he said.

PG graphic: New direction for Mon-Fay?
(Click image for larger version)

Instead, he has proposed completing the 13-mile leg to Monroeville; extending the East Busway by 2.8 miles so that it connects with the expressway in East Pittsburgh; building a park-n-ride lot where the expressway connects with the parkway in Monroeville; and allowing HOV traffic on the busway.

That would give drivers three options at Monroeville: Sit in Parkway East traffic; park and take a bus into Pittsburgh on the expressway and busway; or use the HOV, which likely would be tolled, he said.

While acknowledging that the plan would face significant obstacles, Mr. Kirk said it would be less costly and less controversial than building the expressway into Pittsburgh and would achieve the same goals: relieving congestion on the Parkway East and opening up Mon Valley brownfield sites for commercial and industrial development.

"Because the expressway alternative involves a number of multimodal components it would likely attract funding from a number of sources including state and federal multimodal funding," he said. "These funding sources could even be used in combination with a public-private partnership to help make the project a reality."

Mr. Kirk has yet to circulate his idea much, aside from his organization's board of directors. "I want to float the idea and just get some initial feedback," he said.

Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said Mr. Fitzgerald had not heard about Mr. Kirk's proposal until a reporter inquired, and said he "thinks that there would be a lot of hurdles to it."

Port Authority, which owns the busway, "would welcome an opportunity to sit down and discuss the idea and look at it more carefully," spokesman Jim Ritchie said. "There are some obstacles to using the busway in that manner."

The busway was built with federal funds and designed for higher-speed transit bus operations, he said. "By putting more nontransit vehicles on the busway, it's likely that public transit trips would take longer and the benefit offered by the busway would be adversely affected." Federal approval would be needed before such a change could be made.

Another issue is safety: Buses currently stop at several stations along the busway, speed limits are lower on the approaches to stations and there are pedestrian crossings, he noted.

Mr. Kirk said his plan could help build support for a transportation funding bill in the Legislature when it revisits the issue in the fall.

"It's time to stop fighting over an expressway highway-only design that likely will never be built and work together on an expressway alternative that is both feasible and provides real promise for our entire region," he said.

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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.


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