Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lawrenceville Greenway Circulator

Slow Clap to the Mayor, and URA for this plan.  It’s a great start to making the city more dense with development once again (and green development at that).  This new green development conjures images of Portland and other urban oases. 

As with any re-development plan (unless you’re a sprawling city) the key is to integrate transit options other than automobile based to increase mobility into and out of your new development.*

This newest plan for Pittsburgh’s new riverfront development certainly addresses these issues.  AVR’s branch to 26st street in the Strip has been planned for integration into the development as part of their already proposed commuter rail and also includes an at-grade “trolley circulator” which would traverse Smallman St.  and Penn Ave.

I’ve talked ad-nauseum about AVR’s commuter line (although I will address the addition of another commuter line later).   As a result I’ll focus more on the at-grade trolley topic as well as an oft ignored topic here in Pittsburgh; the water taxi. 

Trolley Circulator

In my mind, you wouldn’t have to do anything to the strip and it would already be a great idea for a tourist centered trolley.  An at grade line on Smallman St. from saaaayyyy the Heinz History Center to the 31st St. Bridge would be great to move people in the Strip on weekends. 

As such it only makes sense that this idea would be incorporated into this riverfront plan.  As written in the proposal, this line would start at the David Lawrence Convention Center and travel at grade up Smallman St. to the 40th St. Bridge, where it would then loop onto Penn Ave back to approx 21st St. where it would rejoin the ROW on Smallman back to the David Lawrence Convention Center. 

As I said before; solid idea.  I also realize that this is just a proposal for the entire project and as such doesn’t go into too much detail on the transportation aspects of it.  However, there are some issues that should be discussed and ironed out.  

First, check out this great primer for streetcar systems over at the Transport Politic.  

There have been a number of streetcar systems established in the U.S. within the past ten years.  What’s even more promising is that some of these have built a successful nitch in traditionally non-transit friendly areas, such as Tampa’s TECO Streetcar and Little Rock’s River Rail. 

These and other systems have capitalized on the nostalgia aspect of trolleys.  Many lines use either heritage equipment (like San Francisco’s fleet of PCC cars) or new equipment made to look old (like TECO and Little Rock).  It would bring back a lot of memories for Pittsburghers to see trolleys like this

 or this

There is certainly something to be said for marketing your operation correctly and nostalgia is certainly a good way to do it.  However, nothing beats ease of use and good inter-connection.  I like the idea that it spans the entire length of the Strip from downtown all the way to Lawrenceville.  It would be a great way for a Lawrenceville or Strip resident to get downtown or move between the neighborhoods.  

However, the key question which isn’t really addressed here is;  how do you get to the trolley if you’re not one of these residents?  What are it’s connections?  I know there is talk of another trolley circulator to Oakland but that’s a topic for later.  How will someone from the Southside, or the South Hills make use of this trolley without driving to a parking lot in the Strip or Lawrenceville?   The T would make a great connector, but with AVR seemingly going all the way Steel Plaza, that takes away that option. 

Additionally how will someone from Oakland, or Hazelwood, or East Liberty or Garfield get to this line without driving?

 It can be done, after all we’ve got the East Busway for the east end neighborhoods, and supposedly this commuter rail will be an option for people coming from the South, but how this will be integrated and implemented are important discussions that could make or break this operation. 

Lastly, I don't like the idea of putting it on Penn Ave.  I know the plan is to use the circulator to take cars off the streets, in particular Penn Ave. in the Strip.   As a transit guy, I know I’m supposed to believe that putting down rails will take cars off the roads, and I DO believe that.  However, I’m a realist and know a lot of people drive to the Strip on the weekends and that a lot of people will continue to do that as a lot of them are NOT city residents but in fact suburbanites.  I also know that it’s basically bumper to bumper traffic from about 25th St. down through 16th on a Saturday morning.  I think over time that will change but the change will not be immediate.  I think you can get nearly the same effect by putting two tracks in Smallman St. and letting Penn Ave alone.  That said:  it’s not a stake in the heart of the idea. 

The second issue is more of a practical nature.  If you have one track on Smallman and one on Penn, you are creating two at grade crossings of the AVR’s commuter line should it follow its proposed route on 26th St.  Two rail operations crossing at grade are more complex than a road crossing a railroad at grade.  It involves more circuitry, and electronic systems to accomplish.  Why do it twice within a few blocks, making redundant systems when you can do it once, on Smallman St?  You’re not chasing passengers away by having the route one block away with the relatively narrow blocks in the Strip, and you’re saving money on implementation and operating costs. 

Overall, I'm clearly on board with this.  I think it's a great idea and the Strip is a great place to do it.  However, there are some issues that will have to be fleshed out before this aspect of the Riverfront plan could be implemented.  

I was going to cover the additional circulator to Oakland in this post, but seems as though I am rambling and will probably cover that and the “proposed” North Hills to Hazelwood commuter line at the same time. 

Next up:  Water Taxi

*As an aside, that was a major failure with earlier re-development projects in the Pittsburgh area.  The water front is nothing more than a dressed up strip mall with oceans of pavement.  The South Side works, although denser development has few options for transit and no room for transit expansion.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lawrenceville Greenway

A full report's finally available on the city's plan for the new "Greenway" which would extend from the DLC to the city line.

Not all of it's transit related, but there are some interesting nuggets, including a trolley "circulator" between Dahntahn and Lawrenceville, some sort of additional circulator between Lawrenceville and Oakland   The oft mentioned commuter rail has popped up once again.  This time including an extension on the old CSX P&W subdivision between Allison Park and Hazelwood (huh?)

I'll have more to say later, but in the mean time; here's the link.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Happier News

Fresh off my previous rant, it's good to see some positive news.

Check it aaaaaaht

It'll be nice to have the Port Authority join the 21st century.  I look forward to more smart card machines than one can count!

“T” Gate

*Disclaimer*  I usually try and be pretty fair, using facts to support my arguments.  This is strictly my opinion.  If at any point you become offended, stop reading and close your browser window.  I’ll be back to the regular old stuff soon enough. 

Enough of this crap. 

It’s getting really ridiculous to see ATU 85 once again shoot the Port Authority, and in turn, themselves in the foot to prove a point.  What that point is, I’m not exactly sure. 

I do know what is being said, however.  The ATU 85 is saying that the Port Authority’s “T” schedules are impossible to follow without violating speed restrictions.  All of this supposedly came about after an external safety audit of PAT operations.

The Port Authority is coming back and saying that the speed limits have not changed in over 12 years. 

I can’t unequivocally say I know that this is the Union’s fault and not PAT’s.  However, judging from the contract “negotiations” of 2008 where the Union threatened to strike because of a minimal increase in healthcare costs, and a lot of the stupidity I have heard roll out of Pat McMahon’s mouth over the past few years, I’m siding with the Port Authority. 

Again, I’m not sure what the real point of ATU 85’s shenanigans are.  If their point is that the 15% service cuts are bad, then address that, pissing off commuters on the T is in no way that my feeble brain can comprehend productive.  All they are doing is adding a disgruntled third party.  A third party that can either support the Port Authority, and in turn ATU 85 or harm the Port Authority and in turn ATU 85. 

In fact, the biggest thing the Union can do to screw itself is to give the taxpayers the impression that they are overpaid and that they underperform.  Right now, it seems like they are right on track to screw themselves.  In the face of extreme budget uncertainty and while they are some of the highest paid transit operators in the Nation, the ATU 85 has decided to go toe to toe with the Port Authority by delaying trains…BRILLIANT!

As I said, I have no idea what this is really about, but I do know what this is accomplishing.  It’s further eroding the faith in public transportation and the Port Authority, by no fault of its own; and could ultimately lead to even GREATER layoffs and service cuts in the future.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Man

A little candor is refreshing every once in a while. 

Cheers to Ed Rendell!

Transportation Ignorance

I like to make fun of the Trib, but I have to hand it to them, they've been all over the transportation/infrastructure stuff!

Check out this article from yesterday's Trib

This article seems to provide a really good barometer of Pennsylvania's public opinion concerning our transportation and infrastructure situation. 

The bad news is everyone appears not to care.  At least not enough to address it.  My crack analysis shows that only a little more than a quarter of your average Pennsylvanian thinks that transportation and infrastructure should be a priority for our incoming state government.  The silver lining to that cloud is that we Pittsburghers seem much more keenly aware of the issues facing our Commonwealth when it comes to repairing our infrastructure and upgrading our transportation systems.  Given the general apathy, I'm sure the rallying cry for the next four years at least will be much the same as it has been: "Don't take my money to pay for your fancy shmancy public transportation" 

Given the low numbers, it's not suprising to see that a majority of those interviewed would not support higher costs to support infrastucture/transportation improvements.  Even less suprising is that those numbers are highest in rural areas. 

The biggest question I have is: why don't people care?  Eventhough Corbett has pledged up and down he will not raise taxes, he, and his appointed transition committee members seem keenly aware of the poor state of our infrastructure.  Why doesn't your average Pennsylvanian feel the same sense of urgency?  The news on the state of our infrastructure has not been kept in the dark.  Yet, most people are still concerned with lower taxes than a bridge collapsing, or getting cars off the roads. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Should we add railroads to the list of Passenger Rail enemies?

A lot of HSR stuff in the news.  It’s no secret that Obama’s vision for a national High Speed Rail network is under attack.  Many newly elected officials are far from passenger rail fans.  Everyone’s heard about what’s happened in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio.  Meanwhile, what should have been a milestone event in Illinois turns out to have simply added more fuel to the anti-rail fire. 

While I do not buy in wholesale to the premise of the article, it brings up some very practical and real issues with the implementation of the Obama Administration’s implementation of HSR and with expansion of our passenger rail network in general.  The biggest and most interesting, in my mind, is the buy-in of the host railroad.  The article surmises among other things that Union Pacific may have “driven a hard bargain” to Illinois and Missouri in exchange for their cooperation with the project.  To me, when they say “hard bargain” they mean $$$.  By money I have a feeling they mean state contribution for upgrades to infrastructure including track and signaling equipment.    

I understand Union Pacific, like all freight railroads want to protect their profitability.  They make their money by moving freight, after all.  However, it’s disconcerting to see they are willing to accept negative effects to our national transportation infrastructure so they don’t see a reduction in their margins. 

The freight railroads, for the most part know they have a captive audience.  Most operating rights of way in this country are private and are owned by corporations.  Any public agency or partnership that wishes to expand service must cooperate with the freight railroads and basically must submit to whatever conditions the carrier lays out, or risk outright refusal to cooperate.  There are legal means to get around this refusal, but a profitable freight railroad is much better equipped to handle a potentially protracted court battle than a coalition using funding which is tight to begin with.  Also, let’s face it, a lot of transportation projects, especially rail projects often face significant opposition, and a public legal battle would not help the situation. 

We’ve seen similar issues here in Pennsylvania.  Look no further than the Keystone Corridor which on paper extends from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  In reality, the section from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is little more than a line on a map.  Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia multiple electric powered trains per day whiz back and forth at maximum speeds up to 110 mph.  West of Harrisburg, a lone diesel powered daily train takes riders to Pittsburgh.  While the line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg sees only local freight service and is owned by the state, the line west of Harrisburg is one of two major rail arteries between New York and Chicago, and is owned by a private company (NS).  Even though there is room to expand (the line was once 3-4 tracks for its whole length, and is now 2-3) NS has gone on record saying that it will require significant investment from public sources for NS to buy in on any service expansion to Pittsburgh. 

Another example is the ongoing Commuter rail saga here in Pittsburgh.  This time last year, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh would be gaining two rail lines; one to New Kensington/Arnold via the AVR, and one to Greensburg via the NS.  By July however, NS’s tune apparently changed, as they became “highly unlikely to allow commuter trains on their tracks”.  As a result, we’ve gone from a dual line heavy commuter “system” to a single line light rail system.  While it’s impossible to know what changed, clearly something did. 

Freight railroad's lack of cooperation in allowing passenger operations on their rails is understandable but detrimental to our nation transportation network.  The only real way to get them to help is to force them to.  Unfortunately, that is a thorny subject.  A lot of people in this country don’t like when the Government tells companies what to do.  Additionally, just like every other lobby, there’s a lot of money behind the railroad lobby and any legislation forcing railroad compliance would have to fight not only political will, but good old fashioned money. 

I have to wonder what the answer is.  I for one don’t know.  It’s hard to see our national rail network ever expanding if railroads themselves will make it cost prohibitive.