Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Wow, that's a lot, and if you scroll down further through the article you will find that the price tag for all this is a measly $3.5 Billion. Mr. Onorato feels that now is the time to act and take advantage of the "...sea change of philosophy in Washington." He has requested the help of Reps Mike Doyle, and Jason Altmire, an outspoken transit proponent to secure this money.
First of all, however realistic this plan is or how likely the funding is to occur, I've gotta hand it to the guy, I like the way he thinks. A world class city deserves world class transportation.
My idealistic side thinks that Dan Onorato and Jason Altmire are forward thinkers who have a great vision of what transportation and transit should be in the region and are willing to go for it.
However, my pragmatic side has to get his side of the story in. Does anyone really believe that this will happen? I like just about everything that Dan Onorato is quoted as saying in this article. However, history is not on his side. Additionally, people didn't like the $500 million for the NSC, do you think they will it like if you change the M to a B? I know that Pittsburgh would get so much more out of this project than the NSC, but I think the average tax payer is only looking at the price tag, and not what you're getting for the price.
Having said that, there are a lot of options here. If Pittsburgh could just get one of the "options" discussed by Dan Onorato, it would be great. I would take a "people mover", I would take a downtown to Oakland LRT, and I would even take an LRT line to the airport.
For now, I'm happy for what we've got. By that I mean, I'm glad we've got at least two progressive leaders who are taking steps to improve mobility, and actively improve our city, and our region.
*Just Kidding! The Trib doesn't actually cover transit, unless it's to bash the NSC.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
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!
Monday, April 27, 2009
It seems that every spring in Pittsburgh, there are certain things we can all take for granted. The flowers bloom, the days get warmer, and the Port Authority begins to talk about its next round of service cuts and fare hikes because they have a budget deficit. It's a frustrating concept, especially with the 15% service cuts of two years ago, and the fare hikes of last year*. It's made even more frustrating knowing that transit usage is up all over the country, including Pittsburgh. There are a million blogs that have a million discussions on this topic, and for every discussion, there are a million more extremely polarized ideas about how to solve the problem. The ideas tend to mirror people's personal opinions about transit. The pro-transit people want dedicated funding that can be adjusted for inflation. Anti-transit advocates want less money for transit, smarter spending by transit agencies, and in general, and privatization of transit agencies.
To be fair, I don't know if either end of the spectrum is really going to work. However, Cap'n Transit Rides Again has a great post about this very subject. One of the topics he discussed was transit profitability, and he cited examples of bus companies that run out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City and also operate for a profit. One reader who commented on his post brought up an outstanding point, and perhaps an outstanding idea for funding transit agencies.
The reason these ventures are successful is because they have a much lower overhead than a transit agency would because they are paying for equipment (i.e. buses) and drivers. They do not have to put any sizeable amount of money into the right of way they are using (the highway) other than the same taxes that everyone else pays, and perhaps tolls. Basically, they have a right of way given to them and maintained for them at little cost. This reader's next point was to say, why not expand this idea to transit agencies across the country? Take State and Federal funds, purchase, build and maintain rights of way at public expense (just like what we do with highways now). Make it the transit agency's responsibility to purchase, operate, and maintain the vehicles, whether they are buses, subways, trolleys, heavy rail vehicles etc. This would be analogous to the State of Pennsylvania/USDOT building a right of way, and PENDOT maintaining that right of way for the Port Authority. I know, PENDOT is not always the most efficient organization in, but they get the job done on thousands of miles of highway across the state. This could make some people mad, but it's no different than what everyone experiences now with our highways. The State, and Federal governments build and maintain the highways and we drive them, more or less for free (aside from the taxes collected to maintain them).
I'm not going to sit here and tell you I have it all figured out, but something has to give. There is more of a demand for transit now than anytime in the last 30 years, but the funding has not caught up with that demand. Additionally, many conservative Americans seemed to be poised for a backlash against the transit spending that must occur to bring our transit systems up to the level they should be at.
*I'm sure that some reader's first comments will likely have to do with inefficiencies at the Port Authority and how all their financial problems stem from that issue. I will grant you, that they do have inefficiencies; they still have labor costs that they must mitigate, and I don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling that the agency is a well oiled machine. However, I also don't believe that they should remain underfunded. Even if these inefficiencies were solved, there would still be a budget deficit. I think operational reform should go hand in hand with a plan to properly fund their operations.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
In a nutshell, Bombardier, whose people mover division (think the subway on tires at the airport, or skybus) is located in West Mifflin wants to put a test track at the Hazelwood site. That's good news for a couple of reasons.
#1: If this proposal is to take place it represents re-development of a former brownfield site within the City of Pittsburgh. Re-development is good. Re-development within the City of Pittsburgh is even better. Additionally, it is an investment in the future. With the recent re-investment in transportation systems both in the U.S. and abroad, the indication is that this test facility and West Mifflin factory, and all the jobs that go with those two would be here to stay for the foreseeable future.
#2. From a transit/transportation perspective, this could makes Pittsburgh look good. To have a test facility for future transit projects increases Pittsburgh's standing in the transit world, and perhaps, down the road, could lead to future transit investments in Pittsburgh, either by Bombardier, or other transit/transportation companies. I realize I am being optimistic, and that generally optimism is pretty dangerous, but sometimes it just feels good.
Now for the reality/common sense check. First this isn't finalized yet. Obviously, negotiations between the city (URA) and Bombardier must take place. After that, they still have to get the proper permits to begin construction.
Additionally, the third last paragraph just doesn't make sense. Apparently, someone from the URA had the foresi...delusion to request that Bombardier "...eventually connect it with a transit system that links the site with the Pittsburgh Technology Park in Oakland and to Downtown".
Whaaaa?????? Did I miss something? Are we going to give the skybus another shot? All indications are that this will be a rubber tire people mover TEST track i.e. a CLOSED LOOP. Additionally, a rubber tire people mover is completely incompatible with any other mode of transit currently used by the Port Authority. Even if this is a steel rail test track, it is very unlikely that it will be compatible with Pittsburgh's current LRT system, or that it would be compatible with a heavy rail commuter service.
I would agree that whatever facility they build should have access to public transit, be it bus, or a commuter rail line, but I sincerely hope they are not suggesting that they take this system and attempt to extend it to Oakland or Downtown, thus creating yet another form of transportation that doesn't really go anywhere or connect to anything. ugh.
Just let them build it and be happy about the development.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
-To me the biggest surprise, and the bitter portion of the conclusion was that a line to Greensburg would not have ridership to support operations. This surprises me, obviously a lot of people from Greensburg commute to the city. I know just about every Westmoreland transit bus I see on the busway in the morning is PACKED. In fact, when Republicans Mike Turzai and Mark Mustio proposed that agencies from other counties be able to pick up/drop off passengers in Allegheny County* the Director of the WCTA (Westmoreland County Transit Authority) Larry Morris replied that his buses could not (presumably the Greensburg Flyer) because they were already too full.
On the other hand, most of the route along which the Greensburg line would have traveled through are depressed to say the least. The NS Pittsburgh Line travels through the borough limits of one of the hardest hit Rustbelt victims, Braddock. Despite that, I still feel a commuter service could have drawn from other more suburban areas, like Monroeville, Holiday Park, Plum, etc.
-Luckily, on the bright side, the segment from Arnold/New Ken still appears to be a viable option. There appears to be an issue of operating subsidies, and that might get the NIMBY's fired up, but it appears to at least be viable. Rep Jason Altmire, a big proponent of the service feels that he should be able to secure funding to begin laying the ground work, including devising an operations plan, and beginning to upgrade the route, among other things. That's exciting.
There are issues here that still must be solved as well. Where will the line terminate? Will it share any tracks with NS? (that could still be a big hurdle, and for all we know, may be the reason the Greensburg line was deemed unfeasible) Where will the needed operating subsidies come from?
It's still a long way from completion, but one step is out of the way.
* The move was more of a publicity stunt to by these two representatives. They were attempting to "scare" the Port Authority into operating more efficiently. However, the argument was a moot point, and should have made the two look pretty silly. The law says the authority (in this case PAT) has the ability to make that decision on their own. The Port Authority had already allowed outside county transit agencies to pick up/drop off in Allegheny County. D'OH!
Monday, April 20, 2009
I had an interesting interaction with Mr. Dowd's campaign, I was somewhat frustrated at first, but his campaign contact was very polite and helpful. Using his website, I sent the same question that I have sent the other two democratic candidates. "What are your plans for transportation infrastructure and transit if elected as mayor?" I received an e-mail several days later, but instead of it being an answer to my simple question, it was an e-mail soliciting me to contribute to Mr. Dowd's campaign. I was naturally a little miffed, the campaign did not answer my question, but has assumed that Mr. Dowd now has my vote and needs my money.
So far, off to a bad start...
I quickly responded with an e-mail of my own stating, in a nutshell, that the campaign was making a pretty big assumption if they believed I would support Mr. Dowd without even a reply to my question. As I said before, the campaign rep I spoke to was very courteous and helpful in his reply where he answered my question.
"Patrick's plans for transportation and infrastructure fit within his broader vision for smart, strategic development of the city...you'll see that Patrick wants to invest in mass transit corridors that will promote dense development and a more sustainable city. He's very interested in projects like the Oakland - downtown corridor and working closely with the Port Authority to provide the most efficient and effective public transit system possible."
He also wrote about Mr. Dowd's stance on bike-ped initiatives (Bike Pittsburgh will be pleased).
Lastly, he wrote about a much needed re-vitalization of Pittsburgh's infrastructure "...whether it's for transit, or water and sewage..." Can't argue with that.
Mr. Dowd shares the opinion of Carmen Robinson that reform is needed within the Port Authority to improve efficiency. Additionally, Mr. Dowd seems to be the only candidate to have a specific vision for transit and transportation relating to their potential administration and to note their support of a specific tranit plan (The Spine Line). These points are certainly positive, but as with all politicians, there remains the looming shadow that this is all just campaign fluff and nothing will be addressed. This is nothing against Mr. Dowd, but just the nature of politics.
Mr. Dowd's website is also the only website of the three candidates that directly addresses transit issues. His website includes a paragraph entitled "Investing in mass-transit corridors". He states that "I intend to work closely with the Port Authority in order to promote development that increases ridership, fosters community and neighborhood revitalization, and supports local economic development." Now that's right up my alley! He's saying alot of the right things; talking about T.O.D., neighborhood revitalization, and creating a better transit system. Although it is a short paragraph, and generally broad like most information on all three candidate's websites, it is well thought out and clearly provides the greatest vision for transit of all three candidates.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Pennsylvania is in the running for funds to build a connection between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg which would complete a HSR corridor between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
A couple quick thoughts on my part:
-I want better Amtrak service than what we have now. The route over the Alleghenies (owned and operated by NS) is not the best route right now for HSR. It's heavily trafficked, and has many curves and steep grades. Couldn't we connect to Cleveland with HSR, and add more "standard" trains with better scheduling east to Harrisburg and beyond? I'm not saying don't throw money into upgrading the current route and adding trains. I'm saying significant upgrades could be made to the current route without making it an HSR route (at least for now). For the larger picture, this would free up more money for projects that are closer to reality (California for example) and still provide Pittsburgh area residents with an alternative to an expensive flight or a long drive.
-Having said all of that; I will gladly take any HSR funding that comes our way, and if I were given the opportunity to ride to Philadelphia on an HSR train, I would welcome it.
-Also, I think it's ridiculous to even mention the MAGLEV in the same sentence as this HSR plan as the Post Gazette has done. This plan is in no way shape or form supposed to give a Pittsburgh MAGLEV money, and I think to even entertain the thought is to invite trouble and slow down the process of doling out the money. I will say that a MAGLEV from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia would be incredible, and a great advancement. However, I say, take what you can get when you can get it. We are in the running for HSR funding, let's go for that instead. Not to mention, I can't imagine the ungodly price tag for such an animal.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
I posed the same question to Ms. Robinson that I posed to Mr. Ravenstahl, and Mr. Dowd: "What are your plans for transportation infrastructure and transit if elected as mayor?"
Her first answer was:
"Although I have thoughts on transportation and some experience in that industry, I will have to use the "bully pulpit" of the office since transportation is squarely a County Executive and County Council mandate. I didn't say issue because it affects all of us. Currently the office of the Mayor has no influence over Dan Onorato. I will change that!"
She went on to explain what a bully pulpit is, and I didn't include that. As far as an answer, it's pretty vague, but not far from a standard politician answer to a question. She is right that it is a County matter, but it is a big matter for the city. As far as how she would approach using the bully pulpit, she was again, pretty vague.
I sent her a clarification question, relating Luke Ravenstahl's "infrastructure wish list" and asked her if she had any more concrete ideas for improving transit and transportation. She responded by saying she would argue for sub-contracting out certain services. Saying that " If a private company were run the way PAT does, it would be out of business...A competive (sic) bid for sub contractors could give the system the boost it needs"
I certainly agree with her assertion that the Port Authority is not running as efficiently as it could. Again, just because the Port Authority is not a business, doesn't mean that they can't run efficiently and emulate a business. However, I question her plan on sub-contracting and on what scale? East Busway maintenance, for example is already contracted out, and that still sucks pretty bad too.
Even this discussion was pretty broad (but that is to be expected), but if you read between the lines of her discussion on sub-contracting, she has a point. Ms. Robinson is the first candidate to specifically discuss inefficiencies at the Port Authority.
The big question is, will she have the political muscle, and the time to devote to a true solution when there are plenty of other problems, and technically, she would not hold the mantle for transit in Pittsburgh.
Ms. Robinson's website, as with every other candidate website is not detailed, and I'm sure this is purposefully done. She has a section called "What I stand for" which again is very general and does not mention transit or transportation at all.
In my assessment, like the other candidates, transportation and transit are not hot button issues (other than staying away from them) for her. However, I think Ms. Robinson is aware of some of the problems that the Port Authority has, and thus far has been the most willing to admit to those problems. She certainly sounded like she was willing to give Dan Onorato her input on those issues, and from what I have been able to gather up to this point, that is more than our current mayor.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
This post is meant to be as non-biased as possible. I will do my best to pick apart each bit of information that I do get as evenly as possible. The first post will describe the plan of our incumbent mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
I have contacted his re-election office with the simple question of "What are your plans for transportation infrastructure and transit if re-elected as mayor?" To this point I have not received a response.
There is however the "infrastructure wish list" which was published as just that, a wish list for stimulus funds, which were at that time in the pipeline, and Pittsburgh was taking its place in line. The stimulus money has since been doled out, but I think this list provides a good blueprint of where his administration stands on these topics. Most of the items on this list address current infrastructure (Greenfield bridge repairs, major sewer repairs, etc.) . I certainly can't say anything bad about that, lord knows we have lots of old infrastructure in Pittsburgh.
However, I see little imagination, and little planning for the future in this list. Where's the transit expansion? Where's the commuter rail line Bill Peduto talked about? Maybe there's another wish list out there. If there is I sure can't find it.
Additionally, if you look on the "issues" section of his re-election page, you find his "Blueprint for Pittsburgh's Renaissance." (As an aside, saying Pittsburgh is undergoing a renaissance, is absolutely ludicrous, and actually hurts the recovery efforts of the city. Get the city out of Act 47, and stop the population loss, and then we'll talk). Nowhere in this blueprint is the word transportation or transit even mentioned. The number seven point on his "blueprint" got me excited. However, like all his other points, transportation or transit were not mentioned.
From what I was able to gather (and that's not a lot), transportation, transit and infrastructure are not too high on his list. My guess he is willing to let Dan Onorato fight those battles. I will update this column when someone from Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign responds to my question.
*For the purposes of these posts I will consider transportation to be an all inclusive term to include transportation infrastructure, and transit.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Remember that today.
One reason I have fallen in love with this city and am now so proud to say I AM FROM PITTSBURGH, is because of the sense of community. The fact that we come together when the chips are down, better than any other city or place that I have ever lived in my entire life. Let's not disappoint today Pittsburgh!
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Mass Transit Magazine had an article from USA today talking about job migration to the suburbs. It's not a new problem, but it's disconcerting that it doesn't seem to be going away. It talks about several contributing factors, mainly taxes and overall labor expenses. When you give a strong incentive for companies to move to the suburbs, combine that with municipal authorities who have a weak incentive for any transit friendly planning, and you get the modern American office park (like the one I work in), with sprawling green lawns, parking lots that have a bigger footprint than the building they serve and no access or logical connection with any form of transit.
The one caveat (and perhaps silver lining) to this story is that the data was collected between 1998 and 2006. As the article states, this trend bucked the "DotCom Bubble Burst". However, I imagine that changed when the real estate bubble burst, because unlike the popping of many other economic bubbles in the past, the recession has hit the very heart of suburbia. It no longer makes financial sense for many people to live in the suburbs and drive absolutely everywhere (especially for people who were living beyond their means in suburban "dream homes"). Pittsburgh has gotten a lot of attention recently for a reverse migration. Check out this article.
If this trend of suburban migration is reversed (and I hope it is), we need a long term incentive that will keep people in Pittsburgh long after the bursting of the real estate bubble. In my mind, a key incentive is mobility.
How do you manufacture mobility you ask?
No, not by making cars and building highways.
Why by expending transit options of course. Additionally, as I have said before, sometimes you have to bring the transit to the people, other than the people to the transit. Build a supporting infrastructure (T.O.D.) that will allow people to have a desirable level of mobility using transit.
Friday, April 3, 2009
When I rant, I generally try to at least have a positive conclusion, or a solution instead of just talking about the problem with no answers. This time, a good old fashioned rant is what is in order. Let's just put things in perspective here for a minute. President Obama has initiated transportation funding the likes of which hasn't been seen in decades (if ever). California has been able to see a HUGE chunk of that money ($8 Billion). Other states would KILL for that much stimulus money to launch their own projects. The scale of this project is unprecedented, and will be a GIANT leap forward in developing our national transportation infrastructure. The project can provide a competitive and sustainable alternative to Californians who feel their only efficient travel options right now are cars or planes.
Apparently, just about everybody in California was on board for the project. Then...somebody made the HUGE mental leap that the right-of-way was going to have to go somewhere, and that somewhere was going to be near some homes. These homeowners people quickly forgot about all the benefits of the project and suddenly became the worst kind of people in my book, selfish Americans. A very specific kind of Selfish American, the NIMBY*.
The NIMBY is, in my mind, the greatest roadblock to progress in America. No public improvement can be made without a NIMBY raising a stink and using various arguments including my personal favorite: "I don't care about the greater good, what about my property value?"
Through years of exhaustive research I've been able to isolate two types of NIMBY:
The Direct NIMBY, and Indirect NIMBY.
The direct NIMBY is someone who would be more directly affected by a project, for example, a new light rail line that goes through their neighborhood and they do not want the construction hassle and noise associated with this new development A direct NIMBY is more the out of sight, out of mind, as long as the project doesn't immediately disrupt their happy little bubble, they will generally not complain too much about a project.
The indirect NIMBY is generally the more hard line of the two. The indirect NIMBY does not wish to expend any effort (including financial effort) to support any sort of project. Meaning, even if this new light rail line does not come within miles of the indirect NIMBY's house, this NIMBY is against it because they do not like light rail, and they see public money, and in turn their own money going to support this project, and that is just not right in their mind!
Of course, this posting is a pleasant mix of sarcasm , humor, and a dash of truth. Don't lose sight of the message , however. We as a nation are presented with a great opportunity, I can only hope we don't squander this opportunity for the greater good by bowing of the demands of a very vocal, and selfish minority.
*Disclaimer: I'm not ignorant to the fact that the government can screw people when working on projects that will require construction on or near some one's property. From a personal perspective, I have a co-worker who had the town she lived in offer her $1.00 (that's right, a dollar) for property damage associated with digging a new sewer line through her property. That's not where my concerns lie with property owners; I understand the concept of fairness. My concerns lie with people who really won't be losing that much (maybe they have to deal with a little more noise, or maybe their pretty views from the back deck will be obstructed) but are willing to hold up a huge project whose benefits for the greater good well outweigh the inconvenience to the minority.