Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My idea for Heavy Rail service in the East End Part 1.

A little while back (yesterday), I wrote a post in response to a Post Gazette article about a proposed "rail shuttle" between Lawrenceville and Hazelwood. While I think the principle is good, I think heavy rail is a poor choice for a short distance shuttle, or if it is done, I think the destination choice is poor.

That said, I came up with what I feel could be a better solution while sticking with the heavy rail concept, integrating current plans for a two line commuter rail "system", and maximizing current rail infrastructure, and minimizing new construction.

I won't talk too much about the current planned system, other than offering a few ideas on how to maximize service, and how to work with the existing freight carriers over whose lines the proposed system would operate.

I will also talk about some ideas on how to make the "shuttle" a little more likely to succeed. (but I gotta be honest, I still don't know that this is a viable solution to move people within the city of Pittsburgh. This idea does not address the issue, that I've touched on before, that we don't have an integrated rapid transit system. It's still easier for people to enter or leave the city vs. move around in it. As long as that's the case, in my mind, you will be hard pressed to keep people, even those who work here to take up residence and reverse the downward slide of population.)

Finally, I'll break it up into parts so as to cater to today's A.D.D. generation. You have just read Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, god...FEEL the excitement!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Now We're Thinkin'

An article in today's Post Gazette talks about a proposal study to, what else, study. More specifically to study the feasibility of a heavy rail shuttle (for lack of a better term) that would run from Hazelwood through Oakland, on existing tracks (owned by CSXT but operated by Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVR)), and then run to Lawrenceville (on tracks owned and operated by the AVR).

The concept is designed to link areas of high tech concentration, almost creating a high tech corridor. The second part of the idea is to spur growth in Hazelwood, which I'm not sure if you have driven through there lately, but it's near death, and moving towards the "light", and by light, I don't mean economic revival.

(I wonder if this whole study has anything to do with the loss of D'Imperio's market. A market that has closed because of increased crime and lost business, and whose closing has caused quite a bit of controversy. It may sound crazy, but this could be an overture to show residents of Hazelwood, that hey, someone gives a crap about this neighborhood. Thus meaning that it's chances of completion are slim to none. I am going to put my cynicism aside for a moment and assume the proposal is genuine.)

If the proposal was truly made in good faith, it's an encouraging sign and overall, a good idea. It shows that local leadership (government) is willing to think about alternatives to expanding transportation, aside from building more highways. It could also act to attract high-tech businesses to Pittsburgh, in a continued effort to re-make its image as a High Tech oasis amid a rust belt dessert.

However, there are a couple of ideas to keep in mind before we all get too giddy about the idea:

#1. Even if this idea does come to fruition, this would be study #1 of approximately 100,000 yet to come. Translation, this idea is a looooooong way from being anywhere close to reality.

#2. Is this the most cost effective way to do things? Granted, it's great that the infrastructure is already there, and the fact that it's in relatively good shape (Good enough that Amtrak runs 2 trains a day over CSX owned portions of it. The AVR owned portion may need some work). However, Heavy Rail is not cheap to operate, especially over short distances, and for a (at most) 5 mile shuttle, that seems like it could be expensive. You would need high ridership to make it cost effective, and I'm not exactly sure running a frequent shuttle between the locations would justify the operating costs.

That's not to say it couldn't work. I think if you incorporate it as part of a larger system, and slightly re-designed it, you would have a hell of an idea. You've already got talk of a Heavy Rail system using self propelled rail cars* with one line going from Arnold to Pittsburgh, and the other from Greensburg to Pittsburgh, why not integrate it?

Food for thought, and since I'm such a dork, who finds dreaming up transportation systems in my head fun, I will be creating a post soon that will discuss such a system, that already exists...IN MY HEAD.

*As an interesting side note, a company called Colorado Rail Car, built a self propelled rail car called the "DMU" or Diesel Multiple Unit. These were the proposed vehicle for a heavy commuter system in Pittsburgh. (they actually ran a demonstration train from Oakmont in 2004) While doing a little research for this post, I found an interesting message on their website, it looks like the DMU isn't the answer. I wonder what potential impacts this could have on a commuter system in Pittsburgh?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Goodbye Joe Grata

While working on my holiday gluttony, I was surprised to see in the weekly "Getting Around" column on PostGazette.com that Joe Grata was going to hang it up!

He has offered about the only regular insightful, really transit/transportation focused writing in Pittsburgh since I have been here (on and off since 1999). It's weird to say it, but I took his writing for granted and was shocked to see him go, especially so quickly. I guess the Internet is catching up with the printed word, and the Post Gazette has offered him (as well as some other "big names" like Bob Smizik) a buyout and early retirement, and he accepted.

He was influential to me, reading his weekly columns really helped me to decide to start muddling my way through blogging. Additionally, in my mind he offered the only real qualified transportation/transit analysis in the region (among real paid writers). Much better than The Tribune-Review's answer to everything transit of "privatize 'em and let 'em sink or swim."

I don't know if the column will continue, or if it will fall by the wayside. I don't believe much, or anything has been said about it. It would be a shame to discontinue the column. Transportation/transit issues would lose one of their few legitimate voices, and it would be a slight to his hard work and insight over the years.

If nothing else, I personally appreciate his work, and will miss his keen insight on transit/transportation issues in the region.

Read his final column here

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The contract

I figured, unlike the last big news where I didn't blog about the contract resolution between the Port Authority and ATU 85 until about 5 days after it happened, I should address the latest news more promptly.

The details of the contract have been released. I won't regurgitate the details about it but you can find the full report and article here. For the most part, the new contract doesn't deviate too far from the fact finder's report that was published in August. The pay raise doesn't bother me that much, it's more of a cost of living adjustment. The only issue is the fact that the Port Authority will have to foot the bill for some who retire early, and will have to continue to pay health benefits for those same individuals.

I guess you can't get everything, and I think these compromises have helped slow the bleeding, but will not, I believe, be able to stop it. I am concerned that we will run into a similar situation to what we just endured in Pittsburgh when the next contract rolls around. I think the Port Authority will realize (or someone will make them realize) that further cuts must be made, and ATU 85 will resist next time just like they did this time. Only, next time the economy may be in a different place and the union could be much more empowered than they were in this case. Time will tell.

These are, if nothing else steps in the right direction. The new contract, combined with route restructuring and other reforms being thrown around the Port Authority could lead to increased ridership and less $$$ wasted.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Dirty Transit Secret

So here I am, blogging/bitching about how transit does not get enough attention and funding, and how more people should drive less and use public transportation more frequently. Well, I should come clean.

I live a double life. In my ideal (weekend) life, I either walk, or hop on the busway or another bus to get to things that I need to. (That is slowly becoming easier with continuing development in East Liberty, and that pace will hopefully quicken) Life is good.

Then there is my dirty little secret. 5 days a week, I get in a car, and I drive 40 minutes in the car, by myself to work and back. Don't worry, I hate it. It's stressful, tiring, and long. In fact, I daydream about being able to hop on the busway, or any other form of public transit and sit back, and relax, read, listen to music etc, while I am taken to work.

Why do I live this double life you ask? Because I have to. I really tried to find a way to make it work using mass transit, but I can honestly say it would not work. I would have to take a Port Authority bus to Pittsburgh Mills, wait (and I mean wait), get a Westmoreland transit bus to New Kensington, (wait again), and then take another Westmoreland County bus the remaining distance to work. If it were to work for me, I would have to leave three hours before work started. That would put the start of my journey at 5 A.M. Even if I were committed (or crazy) enough to undertake that daily sojourn, it would not be possible, because of how early my trip would have to start.

My goal is to at some point take a job in Pittsburgh that is more commuter friendly. For now I am stuck. Even if I wanted to move to a location closer to work, where I could take public transportation, I would have to get in my car anyway to run errands because the area is so rural.

What's my point? Plan development intelligently. The office park I work in was created for people to drive to individually, access to public transit was not even an afterthought, it was NEVER considered. Now we're paying. From a completely practical perspective, gas won't be cheap forever (thank god my car is fuel efficient). At some point $50.00 a tank for a small car will become the norm again. This is not to mention the other effects (the least of which not being my sanity).

Sure we have to bring transit to the people, but in some cases, you need to bring people to the transit. Part of a good T.O.D. plan is to integrate workplace space, so people can live shop AND work. Part of building a good transit infrastructure is integrating development that supports public transit, not development that barely takes transit into account, or does not take it into account at all.

My hope is that some day office parks like the one I work in now will be considered relics of a bygone era.

Monday, December 1, 2008

How to Spell Relief: AFL-CIO

I know this is old news by now, but like most Americans I took some time out to give thanks for all the privileges and luxuries I have as an American by nearly eating myself into a coma.

In a surprise turn of events, even as it seemed some sort of work stoppage was inevitable, both sides of the labor dispute, with the help of the AFL-CIO, were able to hammer out a contract in Washington D.C. I won't go into details on the story, legitimate news media such as The Trib and Post Gazette have done that sufficiently enough.

There are however, a few points that I find interesting, and that I hope more information will come to light about.

#1. The involvement of the AFL-CIO. Not too much has been said about this other than they really brokered the deal. This is surprising because they do not normally become involved in individual contract disputes, let alone help broker a deal. Joe Grata of the Post Gazette assumed that if the imposed contract were to hold up in court (which they must have thought it would have) it would have huge implications for organized labor in America. I think that is pretty plausible, in addition to an over-all environment in the U.S. that is not terribly friendly towards unions right now. People who are struggling to hold jobs for little money don't have alot of sympathy for bus drivers making $50,000 + a year, for example.

#2. The terms. Not too much has been said about the terms of the contract, and that is understandable because the contract hasn't been presented to the union members yet. Nonetheless, I'll be interested to see how close to the fact finder's recommendations the proposed contract is. Up until now, I've been pretty impressed with the way the Port Authority has handled the whole thing, not giving in to Union posturing about "we've negotiated to get to this point, we're not moving back" yada yada yada. It would be a shame if they threw it all away at the last moment just to avert a work stoppage. To me, that would serve as a textbook example of why we do not move forward as a region. It's early to be so pessimistic, and we will see when the actual terms come out.

The initial news is good, obviously, there will be no work stoppage. Hopefully the Port Authority can use this contract as a foundation to right the ship, and help to bring about the end of business as usual within the Port Authority and Allegheny County agencies.