Friday, July 25, 2008


The Skybus could very easily be the greatest transit project in Pittsburgh history....that never was. The Maglev is currently running second, but any year now, this could replace the Skybus as the greatest project that never was, but I digress.

What is the Skybus you ask? Basically, if a subway, and a bus fell in love, got married, and had a baby, you would have the Skybus. If that doesn't explain it, here's a picture, and another. More specifically it was supposed to be a rubber tire mass transit system to be built in the late '60s into the early 70's in Pittsburgh and whose effects would be two-fold:

#1. Skybus would (finally) provide the city of Pittsburgh with an efficient, technologically advanced, and sensible rapid transit system.

#2. Skybus would establish Pittsburgh as the "Detroit of the transit industry", meaning that Pittsburgh would become the industrial, and research hub for the transit industry in the United States.

This post is not to debate the merits or negative aspects of the Skybus, but is more to illustrate its place as yet another Pittsburgh mass transit project that began with great hope, but became mired in political bickering, and was ultimately abandoned, or extremely bastardized. You can find a paper written on the Skybus and its fall from grace here, where you will get a much more in depth story on its history and the politics that led to its abandonment.

The initial study, which was officially termed the "Allegheny Rapid Transit Study" and was published in 1967. It addressed Pittsburgh's need (which we still have today) for a comprehensive mass transit system. The initial study did not make a recommendation on whether the rapid transit system would use traditional steel wheels (like a subway) or whether it would use a rubber tire system (the Skybus).

The study advocated the building of an "urban system" and a "suburban system". Two lines on the Urban system would extend from downtown, one to East Liberty via Oakland, and one paralleling Ohio River Boulevard.

Additional Suburban lines would extend to, Monroeville, New Kensington, Greater Pittsburgh Airport (Pittsburgh International), several lines in the south hills, and a line that would extend into the Mon Valley.

Eventhough the 1967 study didn't recommend a mode for the rapid transit project, in 1965 a 1.2 mile test loop was built in South Park to show off the Skybus. This demonstration project was designed to convince local and national decision makers that Skybus was the way to go for Pittsburgh and America. From the very beginning Skybus was the front runner, and it seemed inevitable that it would be the mode for the new transportation system.

Trouble began to arise when the political climate in Pittsburgh began to change in the late 1960's. The cooperation and unified vision that prevailed during the late 1950's and early '60's changed to an attitude of distrust towards the established powers that be in Pittsburgh. New politicians were not part of the "good ole' boy" system in Pittsburgh and began to openly challenge the Skybus as a plot by an elitist group to serve their own ends and not help the city.

Fuel was added to the fire when it was proposed that a starter system would be constructed from the South Hills to Downtown (Sound familiar..."T"). This angered the new regime in local government saying that, among other things, it was biased towards the affluent South Hills, and neglected the needs of the East End (Sound familiar..."East Busway")

There were additional arguments because certain local interests wanted to fully explore a steel wheel system (aka Subway).

What happens when you mix all this bickering up together in one big pot? NOTHING! That's absolutely what you got by the end. A project that may have revolutionized (I said may) transit, or at the very least would have given Pittsburgh the chance to have a comprehensive rapid transit system was gone.

PAT instead decided to upgrade the T in the South Hills and Downtown, and build the East and South Busways. One hell of a consolation prize for the city of Pittsburgh.

The Legacy of the Skybus: Once again, what did we all get in the end? Not a whole lot. A potentially innovative idea, alot of politics, alot of money spent, but no rapid transit system for Pittsburgh. The end result was an "upgraded T" that still only serves the South Hills and Downtown, and the continuing feeling that the East End is being slighted because it's not the rich, white suburbs of the South Hills.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Part I: The Early Years

I figured this would be a two to three part post when I got started. What I actually found is that Pittsburgh has been transit study crazy for the last 100 or so years. If ever there was a city that did not learn from its mistakes and continues to repeat them, it is the city of Pittsburgh. Here is a brief list of some early transportation studies that advocated advancements in Pittsburgh's transportation system (mainly construction of a subway system).

1906-1929: The first studies to mention construction of a subway underneath the city. The initial study in 1906 recommendations included a downtown loop with several lines radiating out from it. I wasn't able to dig up exactly why these first few attempts failed ( OK, I didn't dig all that hard). More importantly, these early studies began to establish a long standing tradition within Pittsburgh of studying mass transit options to death, but doing nothing further about it.

In 1919 the first mass transit proposal that really seemed to carry promise occurred. Bond was even issued in hopes of beginning construction, but nothing came of this. It seems that Political wrangling helped do this proposal in. The construction was to be limited to the "1st and 2nd Wards" (Basically daaahntaahn, and the Strip). Does this sound familiar to anyone???? Political in-fighting that stifles the local government until....absolutely nothing gets done, and alot of money is wasted.

The bottom line; between 1906 and 1929 no less than 7 studies/proposals came to light. In the end, what did the city have to show for it? $ 20 million in bond issued, another $30 million in bond recommended for issue for transit improvement, and absolutely nothing to show for it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A history of failure

I believe a large part of why we are where we are as a region today is because of a lack of vision and a reluctance to move ahead. It's funny that Pittsburgh and the surrounding region is very innovative, and is still a center for research and development, yet at the same time, there is a tendency to look backwards, and hold onto the past, and become mired in the now, rather than focusing on the future.

This lack of visions has seeped into all areas. From industry (the exodus of the steel industry and manufacturing in general), to government. Because this blog supposedly focuses on transportation, I'll concentrate on how the lack of vision and poor decision making up to this point concerning transportation has got us to where we are now as a region. I'll highlight some transit and highway plans* that never were, never got off the ground, or maybe should have never been. It's amazing to me the number of transportation plans in the Pittsburgh area that have gone no where (and continue to go nowhere aka "The Maglev" or "The Springfield Monorail"). Stay tuned!

*That's right, I said highways. While my tendency is to bad mouth highway spending and driving, and to talk up mass transit, it would be naive of me to think that any city can survive in our culture without a logical highway system.

Before I beat down the Burgh Part 2

I graduated college in 2002. I would have been happy to stay in my new found home, but the Army saw to it that I would not be able to stay. They had lived up to their end of the bargain to pay for my college, now it was time for me to live up to mine.

I spent the next three years bouncing around, from Kentucky, to Georgia, to Iraq and back. The whole time I wanted to get back to Pittsburgh more than anything. I tried to visit at least several times a year. At the time, Pittsburgh seemed like a fortress of reason and intelligence, where I was living in the land of ignorance and necks that are red. I told myself again and again that when I was done serving, I would come back to Pittsburgh (but I wasn't really sure I believed it myself).

In 2005 I sealed the deal. I met my now fiance' while home on R and R from Iraq. In 2006 I was released from Active Duty and moved back to Pittsburgh. It was not all roses, not by a long shot. The population had really begun to leave the region, and Pittsburgh was still dealing with its plunge into bankruptcy in 2004. The poor state of the region affected me personally. I came out of the military with a pretty good resume'. While friends of mine had accepted very good paying jobs across the country, I limited myself because I wanted to be here, for better or for worse. I spent the last two years bouncing from job to job trying to find a good job that was equal to my experience. I've finally found a decent job, but it's not my dream job and it's probably just another stop along the way to my ultimate goal.

Either way, and as silly as it may sound, I am committed to this place. It has become my home, and we've shared the best times, and the worst times. My heart is tied to the success or failure of the city.

Right now we (you, me, local government) are not going in the right direction, so I will be critical, I will "bash the Burgh". But just know, that I do it out of a sense of tough love. Because Pittsburgh is a great place, and it should be able to live up to its potential.