Allegheny County visitors rave over Cleveland's HealthLine bus line

Dedicated rail-like plan could boost Oakland corridor

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CLEVELAND -- Meet Rich Fitzgerald, straphanger.

Mr. Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive, led a delegation of nearly 70 Pittsburgh business, government and community leaders Thursday on a tour of Cleveland's innovative HealthLine, which uses buses that have been modified to resemble and behave like rail cars.

The vehicles cruised several miles of what is known as a Bus Rapid Transit line, on which they travel in their own dedicated lane, passing several of the 40 stations on the 9.4-mile HealthLine, which connects Cleveland's downtown with its medical-university-arts hubs.

The delegation, which included representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Pittsburgh City Council, UPMC, the Port Authority, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Carnegie Mellon University, the Penguins and the Benedum Foundation, saw a system that operates faster and draws more riders than the traditional bus line it replaced. They also saw block after block of redevelopment on the Euclid Avenue route, much of which followed HealthLine's debut in 2008.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who paid a visit three years ago, remarked at how the Euclid Avenue corridor had changed since that trip.

"As we went through the Midtown District, which I would compare to our Uptown, I saw a lot more abandoned and vacant properties [back then] than I did today," he said. "Today, I saw a lot more development going on. It shows me that it's really been a success."

The trip was designed to generate enthusiasm for a nascent plan to build a similar system connecting Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland.

In Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, the vehicles operate on existing roads, typically have their own lanes, are designed to resemble rail cars but with rubber tires and serve stations that are spaced farther apart than traditional bus stops. Patrons buy tickets in the stations, which have display boards showing when the next trip will arrive.

Ellen McLean, acting CEO of the Port Authority, said it was her first visit to the HealthLine. "It's very impressive. It clearly shows the benefits you get in economic development. We're excited about it," she said.

The Cleveland hosts estimated $5 billion in development has occurred or is planned, much of it stimulated by the transit line. Ridership has soared by 70 percent. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking, Pittsburgh's largest private parking operator, said a Pittsburgh line could stimulate residential development in Downtown, the Hill District and Uptown, and ease the city's chronic parking shortage. "I don't know how you could be against this," he said.

Cleveland officials for years tried to develop rail service in the Euclid Avenue corridor, but the cost was prohibitive. Bus Rapid Transit was built for $197 million, a fraction of the cost of a subway, while providing similar benefits to rail. Pittsburgh officials have long sought to improve the Downtown-Oakland connection but have always been stymied by the projected cost.

"We've talked about how to connect Oakland and Downtown for the 25 years I've been in politics and government. It's always been too expensive," said Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee and likely next mayor of Pittsburgh. "Now there is a proposal at 10 percent of the cost. It's something we can do and it would benefit communities in between, not pass them by. We could finally see the development of the Hill and Uptown. Yes, we should definitely do this."

Obstacles to a Pittsburgh project include funding and considerably less space for dedicated lanes in the Fifth Avenue-Forbes Avenue corridor than existed in Cleveland. Joe Calabrese, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, said the city was able to devote lanes on Euclid to transit vehicles because of parallel streets that could absorb some of the displaced traffic.

Without those parallel streets, the city could not have established bus-only lanes, which would have disqualified it for federal funding, likely dooming the project, he said in response to a question from Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.

Backers have said they hope construction of a Pittsburgh line could begin by 2016. Mr. Fitzgerald acknowledged that the project is not a sure thing, despite the support of a diverse group of 40 civic organizations. "When the Allegheny Conference and the political leadership get behind something," he said, "it has a good chance of succeeding."

region - Transportation

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit The Roundabout, the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at @pgtraffic on Twitter.


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