Pittsburgh's cab companies make headway on access to Port Authority busways

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Even when they agree, Bob DeLucia and Jamie Campolongo find a way to disagree.

The CEOs of Pittsburgh's two competing taxi companies, Star Transportation Group and Pittsburgh Transportation Group, have long wanted permission for their vehicles to zip across busways and other limited access roads. For one reason or another, the plans never came to fruition. Now they're trying again, with a green twist.

The taxi companies plan to ask the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to support their efforts toward getting their alternative fuel cars on limited access roads. That would speed up service, save fuel and save customers money.

Naturally, Mr. Campolongo and Mr. DeLucia each claim credit for the idea.

"This actually goes back to when [Paul] Skoutelas was at the Port Authority and Dan Onorato was still in office," said Mr. Campolongo of Pittsburgh Transportation Group. "We said, 'Look, we'd love to get our commercial vehicles on busways.' We talked about taxis, super shuttles. FedEx, UPS, everybody was going to get together and pay fees [to use them]."

But Mr. Skoutelas said the busways' environmental impact studies hadn't factored in the proposed vehicles. He left the agency. The effort faded.

Mr. DeLucia of Star Transportation Group says he revived it years ago with the alternative fuel angle. Back then, his was the only cab company with vehicles that ran on natural gas. His whole fleet is propane and compressed natural gas now -- it's part of his patriotic theme. Domestic fuel. Domestic cars. Veterans as drivers.

"I initiated it because I was the only one," he said. It was also a way to incentivize others -- read, Pittsburgh Transportation Group -- to use alternative fuels, Mr. DeLucia added.

Pittsburgh Transportation Group, which is owned by the French company Veolia, now has 50 propane taxis, 15 propane shuttle buses and more in the works. Eventually, there might be CNG taxis as well, Mr. Campolongo said.

The history of access requests for busways is dotted with rejection, according to Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie. "County transit systems made that request some years ago," he said. It was denied.

Bicycles also wanted access, but none was granted. The alternative fuel strategy could potentially fit with several of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's transportation goals, said Chuck Half, innovation and performance manager for the city.

Mr. Half has been meeting with the cab companies about this issue and others that might further the mayor's goal of improving cab service in the city. He has heard about prior failed efforts to get taxis on busways and describes the alternative fuel strategy as a "foot in the door approach."

But for the moment, he's waiting for Pittsburgh Transportation Group to submit a plan that includes such access. If the mayor endorses the concept, Mr. Half would then take it to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, the decision would rest with the Port Authority, which owns the busways.

Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzgerald, said the county executive thinks opening the busways to cabs and other vehicles should be on the table as a means to boost revenue for the Port Authority. But his current focus is securing adequate funding from Harrisburg, she said.

Preferential treatment as an incentive for alternative fuels isn't a new concept. It's seen in the parking garages that reserve the best spots for hybrids and electric cars, like in the Bakery Square development in Larimer. It's in the HOV lanes that allow low-emitting single occupancy cars in at least 10 states, including Virginia, Texas and California.

Pennsylvania isn't among them, but two bills introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate aimed at allowing the practice nationwide. Here, that would benefit a six-mile span of the Parkway North -- the state's only high-occupancy-vehicle area. And it's mostly empty, according to a recent IBM Smarter Cities Challenge report.

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Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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