Friday, September 26, 2008

My Friend T.O.D.

I know what everyone (approx. 1.5 people) who reads my blog is wondering: "Who is TOD? Silly reader...TOD stands for Transit Oriented Development. In a nutshell, TOD is a new(really old) method of planning and building commercial/residential sites so that they are located within walking distance of each other and are located with ready access to transit, whether it be astride light/heavy rail lines, or along bus routes.

While in my mind it's a great idea, it's not new. Before urban/suburban sprawl went out of control and became the "thing" in development planning, what you had in essence was transit oriented development. Small towns or neighborhoods existed where everyone lived, worked and conducted commerce. Everything was close (within walking distance) and most small towns and neighborhoods had ready access to transportation (other than cars).

TOD is a great answer to problems of urban sprawl. It also has the potential to bring riders to public transportation in droves. It can bring the people to the transit, instead of the other way around. You take conveniences that would normally be only accessible by driving (grocery stores, drug stores, etc.) and you put them all in one place. Put them so the people that live there can walk to and from them with ease. Then you give them ready access to transit so they can reach other TOD sites and beyond. It's easy to imagine a network of TOD sites located along established transit systems, and the development that it could create.

Is it a quick fix? No, but it also took sprawl a while to catch on. My buddy TOD is a good long term solution to fixing the problems and population loss in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh that sprawl has caused. In fact, there is already talk of several TOD sites in Allegheny County. Check out the articles here and here.

That is great for Allegheny County, but Pittsburgh is ripe for TOD. Areas of brownfield, like the old J & L mill site in Hazelwood, or the nearly abandoned neighborhood of Manchester, just a stone's throw away from the North Shore Connector. Imagine that, give the North Shore Connector some actual population to move.

I believe we are actually moving in the right direction with TOD in Pittsburgh, let's keep on building!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dan the MAN!

Dan "the man" Onorato has taken his lumps on several issues lately. Probably the biggest lumps have come from the 1o% drink tax (of which I am a big really I am.). As if that wasn't enough, the (in my mind) selfish members of Amalgamated Transit Union 85 have made his life even worse as of late. They, apparently, are willing to put the Port Authority in Bankruptcy so they can maintain ridiculous pension benefits that equal millions upon millions of dollars in costs, and healthcare benefits that they pay practically nothing for, and that cost the Port Authority $29million a year.

I don't want to downplay the important role unions have had in bringing labor practices to where they are today, with the checks and balances and safety measures that have been implemented as a result of organized labor. Unfortunately, there has been a huge role reversal in the last 30 years. Unions were once progressive organizations who were committed to worker's well being. Now they have become ultra-conservative organizations who are more interested in how much people make vs. their welfare.

I want to say kudos to Dan Onorato for coming up with a plan to change the way things are run in the county, coming up with a plan to fund mass transit, and then showing "tough love" to the Port Authority by refusing to release that funding until they come up with a new contract that reduces labor costs and makes the Port Authority a more efficient operation.

It is a sad statement about our region that seemingly everyone in position to make a decision (except for Dan the Man) must be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The mindset of the Port Authority union, Bar and Restraunt Owners, and local government are all one in the same; they share a general unwillingness to change, even for the good of the region.

Dan the man said it best in this quote from the Post Gazette: "... he [Dan Onorato] expended considerable political goodwill in getting behind the unpopular taxes, and he also said riders had done their part by absorbing fare increases and service cuts. Now, he said, it's the union's turn."

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?