$80.7 M sought for bus network

Port Authority asks for stimulus aid for rail-like system

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The 6.8-mile HealthLine in Cleveland is a bus route pretending to be a light-rail line.

The sleek, extra-long silver buses, with a capacity of 100 seated and standing riders, are of a different design than the city's other buses and travel the Euclid Avenue corridor in dedicated lanes with separate traffic signals that give them priority over cars.

Passengers pay their fares at 58 stations along the route, before boarding. The service operates around-the-clock, and LED message boards in the stations alert riders to the next bus arrival.

The faster, cleaner and more frequent service, which debuted a year ago, has cut a formerly 30-minute ride to 18 minutes, boosted ridership nearly 50 percent and sparked $4 billion in investment in the corridor, according to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Port Authority and Allegheny County officials are hoping to develop a similar system here to speed travel and spark development between Downtown and Oakland and in the Mon Valley.

"It is blowing away all of my expectations regarding customer reaction, ridership and the economic development it has encouraged," said Joseph A. Calabrese, the Cleveland agency's CEO and general manager.

The Port Authority has applied for $80.7 million in federal economic stimulus funds to accelerate its Better Bus plan -- a system of faster, more convenient routes that share many of the attributes of rail travel.

The service overhaul approved by the authority board last month includes nine routes for the express service: to Wilkinsburg, Braddock, McKeesport, Homestead, East Liberty, Highland Park, Point Breeze, Homewood and Pittsburgh International Airport.

All of the routes would operate along the Fifth Avenue corridor between Downtown and Oakland, with 15 stations that feature off-board fare payment and display boards showing the next arrival time.

Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the concept would be phased in over several years without the federal grant; the authority is seeking the money to expedite the plan.

"All of these things are possible. They're doing it in other cities," he said. "The only thing holding us back is the money."

Cleveland "has become the model ... for how to do the ideal rapid line through the city," he said.

Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, said the service would stimulate development in the Mon Valley and better connect residents in those towns to job centers in Oakland and Downtown.

The authority's grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation said the project also would boost the long-depressed Hill District.

"The most visible impact of this investment in modern, state-of-the-art rapid transit will be to increase the economic competitiveness of the economically distressed 1.5-mile corridor between Downtown and Oakland. The area will become among the most desirable property for private-sector investment and development in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and indeed the entire mid-Atlantic region -- abandoned and underutilized property sitting between two giant job growth centers with seamless transit connections to both," the proposal states. It estimated up to $2 billion in investment over 10 years.

The proposal also touts environmental benefits. The authority would buy 66 natural gas-powered buses, 36 of which would be the 60-foot articulated or bending type. In addition to cutting greenhouse gases and other emissions, the buses are one-tenth as noisy as diesel buses.

Transit, which currently accounts for about 25 percent of the trip volume between Downtown and Oakland, would increase that share by 8 percentage points, with a ridership increase of 33 percent, or 6,000 trips per day, the authority projected.

Other components of the proposal are a "smart parking" initiative, which would provide a guidance system for drivers using electronic displays and/or mobile devices to tell them where spaces are available, and installation of 70 automated bike rental stations with an inventory of 1,000 bikes in Downtown, Oakland and surrounding areas.

The authority is seeking a grant under the Transportation Department's TIGER program, which allocated $1.5 billion nationwide for surface transportation projects "that show significant economic and environmental promise." The acronym is short for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

Competition for the money is fierce. The department received nearly 1,400 applications seeking a total of $57 billion for highway, bridge, transit, railroad, port and other projects. The grant award announcements are due by Feb. 17 but may come sooner.

Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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