Peduto envisions rapid transit system in Pittsburgh

By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayoral candidate is proposing a massive public transit project, one that he says will benefit Oakland and the city’s student population.

Bill Peduto said his ideal model for an expansion of Pittsburgh’s light rail, commonly referred to as the “T,” would connect most of the city through lines that ran north, east, south and west, which would cost several billion dollars. But his proposal has drawn criticism from his Republican opponent, former state constable Josh Wander, who believes the city cannot afford the project and favors expanding transportation through private enterprises. 

Any actual decisions regarding public transportation must be determined by County Executive Richard Fitzgerald, who is proposing a similar plan for light rail expansion highlighting the development of a bus rapid transit in Oakland, rather than the light rail proposed by Peduto. 

Peduto, the city’s District 8 councilman, said if he is elected to office, he plans to establish a light rail line that connects with the existing system Downtown. As part of the expansion, Peduto is envisioning a light rail line that would go through the North Side neighborhoods to Cranberry Township, which is about 20 miles north of Downtown. Another new light rail line would travel through the West End neighborhoods to the Pittsburgh International Airport, which is about 20 miles west of Downtown. He would also build a rail line that would run along the East Busway to Monroeville, which is about 15 miles east of Downtown along that route.

But Peduto’s rival opposes this vision to extend the light rail.

Against a ‘government Santa Claus

Republican candidate Josh Wander said it would be “particularly cruel” to the region’s young people to pretend such a project was possible since neither the state nor federal government could afford to fund the multibillion-dollar project. In his assessment, members of the generation currently attending college or entering the workforce would have to forfeit some of their incomes in order to pay for this project.

“Unlike my opponent I have no intention of attempting to fool the fine residents of our city into believing that there really is a government Santa Claus and that this government Santa Claus plans to shower billions of dollars on Pittsburgh,” Wander said.

But Peduto insists that expanding light rail transit would stimulate growth.

“We need to expand our transit network because transit is the lifeblood of our city,” Peduto said in an email. “We can’t increase the number of jobs in our city if the people who need them can’t get to them and there’s no way we can build enough parking to allow every person to drive to work.”

One of Peduto’s target areas is the neighborhood Pitt calls home. Oakland is home of the three of the largest employers in Pittsburgh—UPMC Health System, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon—which bring a heavy flow of traffic to the area. Peduto said his plan would reduce traffic congestion, lessen the need for cars for students and provide a good investment for the universities.

Rebecca Belan, former president of the Commuter Student Association said, “Light railwould be helpful for students, particularly from the South Hills, where transit ways into the city/Oakland are limited.”

Currently, a parking pass for Pitt parking lots costs between $386 and $340 for commuter students, and between $736 and $680 for resident students. Since Pitt currently has an agreement with Port Authority of Allegheny County, the agency handling public transportation in the city and its surrounding areas, that allows students to utilize the company’s services without paying fare, students may be able to ride the proposed light rail for free.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said 5,276,481 riders used a Pitt I.D. to ride the organization’s buses and rails for the 2013 fiscal year, between July 1, 2012 and June 30 of this year. 

Laying new tracks

The Port Authority of Allegheny County currently operates a 26.2-mile light rail, or “T”, that runs along North Shore and Downtown Pittsburgh through the southern part of the city. Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said in an email that more than 27,000 riders use the transit service on an average weekday.

In 2012, the Port Authority completed its most recent expansion to the light rail, a 1.2-mile extension that connects Downtown with the North Shore that cost $517 million.

Pharo said the addition increased rail ridership by an average of 18.2 percent.

Mark Magalotti, a Pitt senior lecturer on transportation engineering, said extending Pittsburgh’s light rail further is a feasible idea and would be the best option in expanding public transit.

“By going underground [with light rail], you are going to create quicker service, and you aren’t going to have traffic congestion on the street,” Magalotti said. .

The primary way the expansion’s design plan is being studied includes the light rail operating underground from downtown to Oakland.

Light rail operating underground was the preferred option in the Eastern Corridor Transit Study Transitional Analysis to Locally Preferred Alternatives (ECTS-TA), which aimed to look for ways to efficiently expand transit. It was sponsored by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), the Westmoreland County Transit Authority (WCTA), Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“You don’t want to put the light rail vehicle on the street because it’s going to cause a lot of traffic on Forbes and Fifth Avenue,” Magalotti said.

Research projects have proven that additional light rail in Pittsburgh would be feasible for decades, but Magalotti said high costs have prevented projects from ensuing. He estimated that it would cost between $800 million and $1 billion to develop light rail transit from Downtown to Oakland.

Peduto estimated that his entire proposal would cost several billion dollars and would take up to ten years to complete necessary planning and construction.

“However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible and it doesn’t mean we can’t push to get parts of it done sooner rather than later,” he added. 

In order to fund his public transit project, Peduto said in an email that he would try to use programs such as the state-level Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, both grant programs intended to stimulate economic growth, in conjunction with private investments.

Jay Pagni, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of the Budget, said that it was possible that the RACP could grant funding for certain aspects of the light-rail project, depending on how specifically Peduto said he would use the grant money.

“It really would depend upon what the plan would look like once it was submitted,” Pagni said.

Eligibility for RACP is evaluated based on criteria that include the project’s potential financial and community impacts and the number of jobs it is expected to create.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website, TIGER is a three-tiered program that is based on the extent of a project. Congress allocated $1.5 billion for TIGER I, $600 million for TIGER II, $526.944 million for fiscal year 2011 and $500 million for the fiscal year 2012 pool of TIGER grants to fund projects that have a significant effect on the nation, a region or an urban area. Figures for 2013 weren’t available.

The website stated that grants “fund projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area.”

The Department of Transportation was unavailable for further comment.

Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for the office of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said in an email that the mayor does not have formal authority over the Port Authority, an agency of the county government. Any decisions would have to be made by the county executive and confirmed by the county council.

Downs said that although County Executive Richard Fitzgerald’s would like to expand existing light rail service, his plans do not completely align with Peduto’s.

Fitzgerald would like to see a light rail line that goes north toward Cranberry or west toward the airport.

“In a perfect world, we would obviously love to see light rail in the Oakland/Downtown corridor,” said Downs. “But realistically, in order to see something done soon, it would have to be bus rapid transit.”

Bus rapid transit is a mass transit system that operates mainly in a segregated lane and features bus stations with off board fare collecting and elevated boarding platforms.

In April, Pittsburgh was selected as one of four cities to receive part of a $1.2 million grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to develop bus rapid transit. The foundation awarded the money to the public affairs firm, Global Strategy Group who is partnering with Bravo Group, a Pittsburgh public advocacy firm to support research and raise awareness about the need for BRT and its probable success in Pittsburgh.

Kim Whetsell, account executive at Bravo Group, Inc., said Pittsburgh was chosen to receive grant funding because the Allegheny County Port Authority’s transit development plan proposed a BRT system that would connect Downtown to Oakland and because of the efforts being made by Get There PGH, an organization comprised of 30 Pittsburgh institutions, including Pitt, that is calling for new bus rapid transit systems. 

“There is great potential for economic development opportunities within the proposed route for implementing BRT,” she said.

Although Port Authority has plans in motion to extend public transit through bus rapid transit, Wander said he would try to solve problems with public transportation through private enterprise to “end the Port Authority’s monopoly status in the region and empower other providers.”

Funding additions to the public transit system, Wander said, would force the local government to cut social programs.

“Do we really want significantly fewer student loans and less educational assistance so that we can attempt to build more transportation systems that are not economically justified and will not pay for themselves?” he said.