I've written before about the fragmented, and generally half-assed nature of Pittsburgh's transit "system". I also proposed my own design for a separated grade LRT system to help Pittsburgh have a more complete transit system. Now it's time for BRT to get its due. I've said before that I am pro-light rail, but honestly, from my perspective, whether I am riding a bus on the busway or an LRV on rails, I can still get downtown in about 5 minutes. That's what I care about.
The big difference between a true BRT and LRT is not whether the wheels are steel vs. rubber, or not what the wheels travel on; the big difference is in public perception, but that is another topic for another blog.
If we could have an interconnected LRT system, why not a BRT system? We already have busways that radiate in three different directions (East, West, and South) with just a few short miles between them, vs the single LRT corridor into the South Hills. The problem right now are those few short miles between them. With the current system, if the Port Authority were to create a bus that would go from Swissvale to Carnegie (basically the entire East/West Busways) the bus would have about a two mile stretch where it would have to contend with the streets of Downtown. The same goes for a bus that would travel the entire length of the East and South Busways. In my mind, running busway buses on regular streets to bridge the gap between busways is not an acceptable option.
What is a city to do? Simple, we create a link between them. I know what everyone's going to say, we can't afford that, or perhaps that it's just plain stupid. Luckily, my favorite two words make me think otherwise, existing infrastructure.
Stay with me here, The East Busway would not end at Penn Station, it would continue, under the Post Office (on the Penn Park Branch of the T which is currently unused). The busway would travel THROUGH Steel Plaza where it would meet with the South Busway.
The South Busway currently ends at Station Square. With my idea, it would continue to share rights of way with the T, all the way across the Panhandle Bridge, through the First Ave. station to Steel Plaza where it would meet with the East Busway.
The West Busway is currently the most "isolated" of the three current Busways. It currently ends near Corliss St. Buses then travel via Carson St. to make their way downtown. This busway creates a challenge because it is the most "isolated" and there is really no good way to connect it with the other two busways. Luckily, we could get 7/8 of the way there.
The Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad has a branch line that connects to their main line around the Wabash Tunnel and travels over the parkway where it meets the CSX mainline near the West End Circle. This track is unused, and has been for some time. This would be an excellent ROW for West Busway. It would parallel Saw Mill Run BLVD until the Wabash tunnel, where it would cross over Saw Mill Run BLVD on an abandoned railroad bridge, through the Wabash Tunnel to Carson St. Once at Carson St., the buses would take to the public roadway for a few hundred feet until it would meet up with the South Busway and the T at the Station Square stop.
Why do I get the feeling this idea is going to go over like a fart in church? I can just see the comments now, about how it's unfeasible, and listing a million different reasons why it can't happen. Well, I racked my little brain is best as I could to address potential problems with the plan and here's what I came up with:
1. Emissions or exhaust inside tunnels and at Steel Plaza: There is an easy solution to this one. Hybrid buses, or even electric buses. Look, they're a good idea to have anyway for their environmental benefits, why not at least invest in them for busway service? Boston has a busway called the Silver Line that operates underground, but uses rubber tire electric buses on the route.
2. Operation of LRV's and buses on a shared right of way: This is not an issue because it already happens, buses and LRV's share the Mount Washington Transit tunnel with each other and they share right of way across route 51, before the South Busway splits off. Even with this idea, the two would not share right of way for more than a few miles. Even if speeds had to be limited to, say 15 mph, it's still a steady 15 mph, instead of slow, choppy movement through the streets of Downtown.
3. Clearance restrictions along shared rights of way: This obstacle would probably be the hardest to overcome. The first issue is that buses don't operate at high platforms, the T does. Platforms at Steel Plaza and 1st Avenue would have to be lowered, or at least parts of them would have to be lowered. The more problematic issue is buses bouncing off of high platforms and bridge abutments. I do know that an LRV is 105" wide where as the current Busway vehicles used by the Port Authority are 102" wide. This means an LRV vehicle is 4" wider than a bus, so clearance between vehicles traveling in opposite directions should not be a problem. That would also give buses some breathing room when operating near high platforms. However, I still don't know if I have a good answer for that dilemma. Perhaps some sort of guideway at stations could keep the buses in the right path (think the little track at the car wash that pulls your car through the car wash).
Given an inter-connected system of busways, the best way to operate it would be the the same way you would an LRT or any other rapid transit system. Use a color code, maybe a Red line from Carnegie to Swissvale, and have a Blue Line from the South Hills as far as downtown. At downtown, someone could transfer if they desired to do so.
This could be an excellent, inexpensive way to connect the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a rapid transit system. If feasible, this could be the perfect keystone to an expanded BRT system in Pittsburgh. If it's not feasible to connect the busways in this manner, hey, I'm just a history major who likes to blog about transit!
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