Getting Around: Transportation wish list would cost billions

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If you missed the Nov. 1 Post-Gazette article headlined "Transportation Wish List: County panel recommends light rail to Oakland and airport," you didn't miss much.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato held a news conference to announce the study results, which included reviving plans to establish rapid transit between Downtown and Oakland and creating an "Oakland Circulator System" to link Pitt and Carnegie Mellon to the Pittsburgh Technology Center, possibly with people movers reminiscent of the old Skybus system that politicians scuttled in the early 1970s.

Those two projects may be plausible and realistic to pursue again, ASAP, although neither one has gotten very far in the past.

But the wish list didn't stop there. It ended up being a pipe dream, recommending a laundry list of concepts and ideas, some with improbable outcomes.

Additional strategies included expanding an Oakland Circulator System to Shadyside, Lawrenceville and the South Side; building a rapid transit system between Downtown and Pittsburgh International Airport; converting busways into high occupancy toll lanes for cars; establishing commuter rail service; creating an "Airport Area Circulator System" fed by trolleys; and advancing transit-oriented development in locations such as Castle Shannon and East Liberty.

Gulp!

That's at least five times more public transportation than Allegheny County has been able to develop in the past century.

Mr. Onorato didn't say how much all of this would cost, but undoubtedly it would be many billions of dollars. He suggested that "public-private partnerships and innovative funding approaches could make these linkages a reality," an interesting thought from the man having trouble finding $27 million in his 2008 budget just to keep the Port Authority afloat this year.

To be fair, the recommendations announced by Mr. Onorato were not necessarily all his. They were drawn up by a Transportation Action Team that he appointed in March 2006, with help from a consultant, Lea-Elliott, hired by the Allegheny Conference of business bigwigs.

The team consisted of 15 members (one died), including political supporters and a few people with transportation backgrounds. It was chaired by Dave Hickton, a partner at Burns White & Hickton LLC, a Pittsburgh law firm.

The Port Authority had one representative, Richard Taylor, of Forest Hills, a three-year authority board member. And although the authority would be the agency charged with building and lining up federal and state funding for any project, none of its planning or engineering people was sought to provide input for the Transportation Action Team study.

"Getting Around" has a few more observations, such as:

• If TAT wants to charge cars to use the West Busway as a "HOT Lane" to bypass Parkway West congestion "to generate revenue for priority capital projects identified in this report," the county better be prepared to reimburse the Federal Transit Administration about $200 million for the federal share of busway costs. The FTA does not permit general traffic to use exclusive busways that it funds;

• The study does not mention the little-used Wabash HOV Tunnel and how this waste of money could somehow be salvaged. It ignores -- rightfully so, probably -- the highly unlikely prospect but still active effort of building a high-speed maglev line between the airport and Downtown;

• The study does not consider ideas as simple, practical and affordable as re-establishing streetcars in the Strip District and on the South Side as useful local public transportation and a visitor attraction;

• If light rail were extended to the airport as the study recommends, who would ride? Downtown and Oakland account for less than 20 percent of airport passengers and employees. The Parkway West will soon be three lanes in each direction between the airport and Carnegie, at the junction of the West Busway that provides a transit alternative to traffic. And a significant number of cars will be removed from the Parkway West when the next section of the Southern Beltway is built between I-79 and the Findlay Connector.

The bottom line: Unless it was for political reasons, Mr. Onorato didn't need to create a Transportation Action Team.

He has me.



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