Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A History of Failure Part IV: The Spine Line

The time has come. We have reached the epic conclusion of our 4 part mini series. I must say, from a blogging standpoint, Pittsburgh has made it easy for me to complete these series of blogs. The ghosts of these past failures continue to scream for anyone who is willing to listen. Sadly enough, the policy makers in the region continue to ignore them. Every time an idea comes along to improve Pittsburgh transportation system and or infrastructure, in the end the idea either wholly fails, or the end product is unrecognizable from the initial idea, and does little to serve its initial purpose.

The Spine Line Study done in the late 1980's and completed in 1993 is no different. The Spine line study was wisely aimed at increasing public transportation access in the "Spine Line Corrider" areas of the North Side, Downtown, Soho, the Hill district, Oakland, and Squirrel Hill. What a crazy idea, integrate the highest density areas in Pittsburgh for both jobs and population with the rest of the T system, which up until then had only served Downtown and the South Hills. While this would not have given Pittsburgh a complete light rail system, it would have been a HUGE step in the right direction. Extensions to the North Hills, Mon Valley, Monroeville, or Allegheny Valley could have been added later.

By the time the study was published, several breakdowns of expansion were decided upon.

-Null Option: Basically this was status quo, no changes, or improvements would be made to the Port Authority network

-TSM Option: This option would basically add little infrastructure aside from a bus transit center in North Oakland. It would also increase the frequency and efficiency of the "W Flyer". I am guessing this may be the EBO of the Olden days.

-Light Rail Option: This was broken down into several smaller options.

-A North Side and Downtown option (Sound familiar???? It should. Here's a hint....
The North _____ Connector.)

-Downtown to Oakland. This option had several possible alignments. One alignment was
the Centre Ave Alignment, which would basically take the T through the Hill District on
Centre Ave and drop it in basically under the Hospitals and Pitt's campus. A second
alignment would roughly follow Collwell Ave through Soho and basically parallel Forbes and
Fifth into Oakland. A final alignment would take the T along the Mon, past the present site
of the jail and county courts building, through the technology center and come into Oakland
from the South.

-The Squirrel Hill Extension. There was one route proposed for this extension, that
would take the T roughly parallel to Forbes (obviously underground) from Oakland to
Squirrel Hill.

Of all the options, the most promising was the Downtown to Oakland option. While being a short option (mileage and trackage-wise) this would provide the greatest benefit to commuters and residents of Pittsburgh. It would give more people better access to the second largest employment center in Pittsburgh (Oakland) and would provide residents of the east end with a Mass Transit outlet other than buses.

The greatest deterrent to this project was cost. Even in 1992 the costs ranged anywhere from $1.1 to $1.4 billion. My answer to that is, it ain't gettin any cheaper! Then again, I don't make policy.

These costs put a bullseye on the project in the mid 1990s. Especially with two Republicans running the city and county. It's no secret that Republicans are not terribly big fans of mass transit in general and Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer were no exceptions. They both claimed that larger county wide transportation issues that needed to be addressed, and it was too much money and resources for a small gain in a system (Again, I point to the fact that the Spine Line Corridor has the largest concentration of jobs and population in the county) By 1997 the Downtown Oakland option was no longer an option.

However, the North Side to Downtown segment remained on life support. Somewhere along the way however, the North Side to Downtown segment mutated into the Northshore Connector. In addition to a name change, there was a routing change as well. Instead of serving the greatest population centers and business centers on the North Side, planners took a Pittsburgh left to parallel the river and the fancy new stadiums that were soon to occupy the space on the North shore.

Sounds like history repeating to me. I feel like I am beating a dead horse here, but let me get out my whip for a minute. Once again, a solid idea that would have been a major infrastructure improvement for the city of Pittsburgh was lost through politics and unwillingness to act. Once again, the final product of the study bore little resemblence to the initial plan and did little to serve the purpose for which it was intended. Now instead of owning a system that encourages people to live close to or in the city and gives them access to an integrated light rail network, Pittsburgh has in essence encouraged people to continue to flee the city and county, and if they still work in the city, they drive.

Is anyone as frustrated by this as I am?

Perhaps even more important, does anyone read this?


nathan said...

I am also a huge wisher of things that never were. The East End also houses Pittsburgh's most progressive folks, those likely to use public transit if it's even moderately convenient: proof of this is the whole FlexCar/ZipCar thing, that company does extensive research on an area before moving in to make certain there is a demand for it. The same type of people who can keep that company in business (people who don't drive much or don't have a car at all) are those who would use public transit the most.

I wonder why Pittsburgh has such a hard time with public transit. I've been traveling extensively for the past year and nowhere have I found fares as high as PGH. In Austin you can get a 24 hour pass for $1.50.

So what's the difference there? Is ridership too low to support public transit in PGH? Or do we have too many lacking routes, costing way too much per person (the 25A costs $15 / person and 44D $37 / person).

I also think that the lack of an easy way to figure out your bus route - ie, no schedules posted at stops, no automated phone system, and a horrible online trip planner - are big barriers to getting people to start using the buses.

On that final note, there's a nifty mobile version of the PA's trip planner here which I cobbled together from their existing trip planner. It's not perfect, and works best on iPhones, Android, and other smartphones, but should work pretty well on any mobile phone (in theory!)

Thanks for the blog, love reading.

East Busway Blogger said...

I think there are a lot of things, some tangible, and some intangible.

I can't tell you why at least 3 times throughout Pittsburgh's history, someone has tried to build a coherent rapid transit system, and every single attempt has failed. Politics were involved, but that isn't the full story.

Also, for some reason, Pittsburgh as a whole, does not tend to support large sums of public money for projects. Maybe it's because of the history of success with private individuals and companies, I really don't know(although that would be an interesting topic to explore).

Some reasons are more tangible. You brought up the point of cost per rider. That stems from the fact that population has moved throughout the region (unfortunately towards the suburbs) and the Port Authority never moved service significantly. Alot of the older routes are based off the old trolley lines, and haven't changed all that much.

Additionally, ATU 85 has been a very strong union, and the Port Authority's labor costs are some of the highest in the country, and seem even more out of proportion when you look at the size of the Port Authority vs. larger transit agencies (I'm sure you heard about how Pittsburgh nearly had to endure a strike to get them to pay into their healthcare and pension more)

You take all that, top it with a project like the NSC, and you have a recipe for frustration.

Astrophe, An said...

The W still exists. It runs from Downtown out along the East Busway to the Neville ramp, turns up Fifth briefly, then follows the 67s out Wilkins, Dallas, and Penn to Wilkinsburg, where it terminates at the Busway station. (it's the light gray route on this map)