Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why not a Gondola???

First things first; I learned a valuable lesson early on while researching for this post.

An aerial tram is about as closely related to a gondola as a housecat is to a lion.  While trams and gondolas both travel through the air, are suspended and propelled by cables mounted atop towers, there are some key differences.  (All numbers are approximations and depend on system length, # of vehicles etc.)

Tram               Gondola
Cars/system                                1-2                  10+
Cost/line                                    $15-50 mil       $8-15 mil
Carrier Cap.                              20-50               4-12
System Capacity                        2000/hr            2400+/hr                                             

This idea of an aerial gondola in Pittsburgh popped up a little while ago, and is very intriguing to me.  The idea has been pooh-poohed and at first glance, that notion seems to be accurate.  They’re slow, and can only travel in straight lines without significant upgrades to infrastructure and increases in cost.  Some people may also argue that they are an eyesore high in the sky.

I for one think it’s worth a second glance.  First of all, we’re not trying to connect to the airport here.  This system could be successful as a link within the most dense parts of the city.  Secondly, when compared to the cost for an at-grade or underground rail system, you are looking at an absolute blockbuster bargain (an underground link between downtown and Oakland was estimated at over $1 Billion with a B and an at grade system has been estimated at over $100 million).  An additional positive aspect of an airborne system is the miniscule infrastructure footprint when compared to at grade or underground systems.  Lastly they’re not as slow as you think.  
Detachable technology allows the gondolas to separate from the cable while in a terminal and move independently from the cable which operates at a constant speed.  While the gondolas travel at a literal crawl in each station, they can actually travel as fast as 20 ft/sec once under way.  When you combine that with the fact that they travel in a complete straight line towards their destination, you could be looking at a trip between Oakland and the Southside in a mere 5 minutes.  Five minutes all while taking in beautiful views of our beautiful city.  

Here’s a few interesting reads:

Well, I couldn’t just sit idly by with all this new-fangled and novel transit talk going on and not flex my Google Map muscle.

Essentially, I tried to create a circulator that would take you from nearly any “city core” neighborhood to another relatively easily.  Station placement is key in this scenario because there would be no “intermediate stops” on a given line.  Therefore, easy access to TOD and or other transit is critical for this idea to work.

The system would consist of five color coded lines.  Each line would tie directly into another line at a terminal building and would operate in both directions.  This is to facilitate easy and quick transfer from line to line without a rider having to leave the relative comfort of an enclosed terminal.  Each gondola would ideally hold between 8 and 10 people, and each line would have enough gondolas to keep any transfer time under a minute.   Payment would be rendered at the intial entry station, and an unlimited number free transfers could be made, until a person exits a station and the system. 


Blue: Oakland Campus.  This line would connect Fifth Ave. with the Sports Complex.  Would also tie into the Yellow Line at Fifth Ave. and the Red Line at Pitt’s Upper Campus. 

Yellow:  Oakland to Southside.  This line would connect with the Blue Line at Fifth Ave, and the Orange Line in the South Side. 

Orange:  Southside to Mt. Washington.  This line connects with the Yellow Line in the Southside, and the Green Line at Mt. Washington

GreenMt. Washington to Uptown.  This line connects with the Orange Line at Mt. Washington, and with the Red Line Uptown. 

Red:  Uptown to Upper Campus.  This line connects with the Green Line at Uptown and with the Blue Line at Pitt’s Upper Campus.   


Upper Pitt Campus:  This station serves the Upper Pitt Campus and Hill District.  This station increases the potential for Pitt Students to use the gondola as an alternative to walking up the hill or using a shuttle.  For this service to work however, some sort of free fare system for students would have to be worked out. 
Oakland:  This station would provide access to the heart of Oakland with the Pitt Campus and hospitals.  It would also provide good transit access with the bus routes which traverse 5th Ave and Forbes Ave. 
South Side Flats:  This station would be best situated between the Southside works and Carson St.  This would allow easy access (2-3 blocks in either direction) to the attractions at the Southside Works and Carson St.  This stop would also tie in well with Port Authority service on the South Side. 
Mt. Washington:  This station would offer easy access to the Mon Incline and views of Pittsburgh
Uptown:  This station would tie in very well with Current re-development plans for the Civic Arena site and the Consol Energy Center.  The only potential issue with this stop is it does not tie in well with transit downtown. 

View Fun With Aerial Gondolas in a larger map

Again, this is by no means a hard and fast plan, but a mere suggestion at how and aerial gondola could be made a very well patronized, inexpensive, and viable form of intra-city transportation in the City of Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter What?

It’s hard to miss signs of the 2011 Winter Classic between the Pens and Washington Capitals taking place in just over 11 days.  I for one am ecstatic; between the Alumni game and Classic itself, this an exciting time for hockey in Pittsburgh. 

How is this related to transit you ask?  Well, check out this segue. 

The only organization in Pittsburgh that doesn’t seem to know there is an event at Heinz Field on the 1st of January is the Port Authority.  I understand they’ve been pre-occupied, with the budget crisis, but still, this is a HUGE event for Pittsburgh.  Unlike your average Steeler game (which has a number of transportation options to choose from), a lot of people will be from out of town.  A lot of those same people will be staying in City and area hotels and will be looking for a good way (other than paying $100-$500 to park within a mile of the stadium) to get to the stadium. 

If you look at the Port Authority’s website, you’d think that nothing is going on.  A spin of the ole' trip calculator between anywhere and Heinz Field reveals no special service options, detours or announcements in conjunction with the Winter Classic.

 Meanwhile, a casual search of the internets revealed about 30 different forum threads on various websites from out of towners looking for ways to use public transportation to get to the game. 

This event has already been great for Pittsburgh.  We, as a city look awesome in everything from the advertisements to HBO’s series "24/7".  Pittsburgh likens itself to a progressive and “greening” city committed to livability and sustainability.  That image doesn’t really jive with a transportation authority who, from all appearances, is not concerned with providing quality transportation alternatives to driving for arguably the biggest sporting event in Pittsburgh this year. 

It seems that to the Port Authority, it’s just another weekend holiday on an un-remarkable winter day.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

AVR Commuter Rail Operations Part 3


The end is in sight! 
This final portion of my series on the proposed AVR Commuter line will cover equipment.  It’s been decided, for better or worse, that the AVR’s plan will not use an FRA-compliant heavy DMU, ala US Railcar.  Instead they will use a light DMU.  There are plenty on the market in Europe, and there are several operating examples in the United States

I’ve quoted the RiverLine a lot and they use a version of Stadler “GTW” line of vehicle.  This line is also used by Capital Metro in Austin, TX, and is the proposed vehicle for a new start up service in Denton County Texas

Other manufacturers with a foothold in North America include Siemens Mobility, whose Desiro design is used by Southern California’s Sprinter service and Bombardier whose Talent vehicle was chosen for Ottawa’s “O-Train”.

To be honest, that’s about the extent of the information.  Plenty of company propaganda, but little other information.  I’m not privy, of course, to pricing and what types of options the AVR would include, but if they’re married to a light DMU, then there are at least a number of options to choose from.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

By The Skin of their Teeth…

Whew….I can take a breath for now at least.  Funding is by no means secure for the future, but things look good today.

Here’s to the small victories. 

Very emblematic of the struggle within the state for transportation funding.  The groups that seemingly had little stake in the funding crisis voted “NO” overwhelmingly.  Those in Allegheny County and in areas that had the most to lose voted overwhelmingly “YES”.   It’s more of the classic “My taxes should only go to pay for my roads.  Screw everyone else.”

It’s sad to see that such parochialism exists even within the council.  I’m sure everyone believes they are voting in the best interest of the region (or at least that’s what the point of the SPC is).  However, there are clearly divergent views on what’s important. 

I for one don’t understand how you can let the largest population density in the region (and the economic production that goes along with that) to flounder without proper transportation assets and expect it not to affect more than just Allegheny County.  Washington County realized that, I can’t believe that some of our other neighbors (namely Westmoreland, Butler and Beaver Counties) could not, or chose not to recognize that fact.    

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nothing Set in Stone

First things first.  Don’t call it a bailout (that goes for you too PG).  That insinuates the Port Authority immediately screwed something up*.  The Port Authority didn’t say; “Hey, let’s throw away our state funding on hookers and blow!”  The state promised dedicated funding for public transportation.  Their plan was arguably a stupid idea and they had no plan B when it didn’t work.  Now they can’t balance the budget while providing a sustainable transit funding source.  The blame for this immediate crisis lies with the state.

Apparently, some on the committee are saying that this is just another band-aid.  I would agree.  No one thinks this is permanent.  However, I would also argue the Port Authority shouldn’t be pushed off the cliff to prove a point. 
Permanent funding absolutely needs to be established.  Forcing the Port Authority over the edge and using Western Pennsylvania’s transit users as pawns in the process is not the right way to bring about the needed change. 

The move is meant to buy time to allow steady funding to be established WITHOUT the massive cuts, increased wear and tear on roads, and increased traffic headaches that will occur as a result. 

Not helping the cause is the fact that there seem to be some clear highway advocates within the SPC, especially in areas that are not densely populated and do not have a big public transportation footprint. 

Chairman Charlie Camp seems to be a leader among them, stating: 

"We're tired of the mass transit funding issue coming at the cost of highways and bridges and being put on our table."

I believe that to be a short-sited and erroneous statement.  The money is coming from projects that were not started.  This money would not have been spent on improving our highways.  Additionally, if the cuts are allowed to go through, they will cause major increases in road usage, and therefore increases in wear and tear on our already tired roads and bridges.  Not spending the money to keep the Port Authority going is NOT going to help Western Pennsylvania's roads.

Bottom line, it looks like it’s going to be yet another nail biter in this already very nervous year for the Port Authority and their riders.

If you care about keeping service at least at status quo, then here are a couple of contacts:

To reach the General Comments address:  comments@spcregion.org

To reach the Transportation Planning Directordipietro@spcregion.org

*As I've stated before, the Port Authority has done plenty over the years to warrant anger towards their financial situation.  However, this particular situation has nothing to do with the current regime at the Port Authority.  It's also easy to blame the Unions.  It's true that their negotiated advances did a lot to push us towards this point.  However, the Unions have a legal contract in place and Steve Bland cannot just legally back out on that contract and make the sweeping changes that are called for in some circles.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I found this by way of PGH is a City this morning.

Here's the story.

Rendell has found funding.  That part is good.  As of right now, we don't know if the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission will approve the "flexing" of $45 million in funds to cover the Port Authority funding gap.  They will meet to decide on December 13th.  If you'll recall, over the summer the Commission voted unanimously to turn down a one time "flex" of money from the Governor.  That was then, this is now.

At that point there was hope that a long term solution was still a possibility so in many ways it made sense that the commission would vote the flex down.   Now that we are down to the wire, they will hopefully approve the measure.

 Key word here is hopefully.

Another key issue is, this is just a temporary stay of execution so to speak.  It's a one year, one time cash infusion that will do nothing to solve the perenial funding issues facing the Port Authority.

However, at this point, I'd be glad to take just about anything that will help stave off the cuts.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

AVR Commuter Rail Operations Part 2


First off, in a different post I used the traffic light analogy when describing a railroad signaling system.  That’s partially right.  For a much better and in depth description of railroad signaling, and different types of railroad signal, check this out. 

As it stands right now, none of the current AVR line mentioned in this proposal is signaled.  Signals were removed from this route back in the PRR days.  This means not only that all the signals and associated relay equipment will have to be re-installed, but any other remotely controlled switches/derails*/automatic stops** etc.  and their associated relay equipment would have to be installed.  This is a normal cost associated with setting up a commuter operation. 

Additionally, special signaling would have to be supplied for the portion that runs at-grade on 26th street and on the Busway. 

Here’s the good news.  A local business getting the business.  Union Switch and Signal (a part of Ansaldo) has their headquarters in the city.  This sounds like a match made in heaven to me. 

The signaling concept is pretty easy and straightforward.  A light rail operation can use similar rules and signaling with a few modifications (mainly derails and Automatic train control devices).  Aside from cost, there is little that would be more challenging than a heavy commuter line, or any other light rail for that matter.

*Apparently derails are required at controlled points where a heavy rail operation interlocks with a light rail operation.  These devices will prevent an improperly directed train from entering  prohibited territory.

**  Automatic train control devices would be required at all interlockings.  If a train does not have permission to proceed through the interlocking (by the signal protecting the interlocking), then an automatic train control device would kick in and stop the train.  These devices require both rail vehicle modification and additional lineside equipment.  

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It’s Done Done

With a mere 50 people there to mark it’s passing, the Port Authority inked the largest fare hike and service cut in Port Authority history. 

I wonder how long it takes the other 1 million people in Allegheny County to notice that their lives have been negatively impacted by not giving a damn about transit funding. 

A big shout out to the Pennsylvania State Government for having a funding plan that wasn’t secure, and then showing the political fortitude to do absolutely nothing about it when that funding plan fell through. 

Also a big shout out to Pat McMahon of ATU 85 for threatening to strike over a 6% raise in health care costs and a 3% salary raise in 2008 and then having the gall to scold anyone but the ATU leaders and members of the last 20-30 years who have plenty of culpability in this whole situation. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

While We're on the Subject...

Been doing a lot of writing about the FRA regulations dealing with light rail.  While searching for the regulations themselves, I found this interesting blog post.  It's a few years old, but informative and interesting nonetheless.


Could the issues raised in the post indeed have something to do with how expensive/troublesome it has been to get our national passenger rail network off the ground?  I can't say for sure, but there are some interesting points brought up that would support that notion.

I found the portion on TOD and silent crossings to be particularly interesting (that's how you know if you're a transit nerd)

Monday, November 22, 2010

AVR Commuter Rail Operations Part 1

Ok,  I’m FINALLY getting to this.  I know there’s a lot going on, and a lot of it is negative.  I’d like to focus on something that is moving forward, at least for the time being.  I was going to do this in one post, but it got a little O.O.C. so it’ll be broken up into three. 


Before I get into the whole light rail/freight separation thing, we can get the “easy stuff” out of the way.  Dispatching of this operation would be vary very little from dispatching a “heavy rail” operation.  A dispatcher would oversee operation, line signals and manage the movement and protection of the trains.  The bigger question is who would run it.  I can’t say for sure if AVR has dispatching factored into its annual operating cost in its study of this service.  I do know that they will be on the hook for it.  I would be very surprised if CSX would take on this responsibility, and there’s no way the NS would get involved.  Additionally, as The Trib so wonderfully put it, they wouldn’t want to burden the Port Authority with any further responsibility, so the AVR looks to be on the hook for all operations including dispatching.  A cost issue, which must be taken into account is night-time operations.  If a signal system is installed (it would have to be) it can’t just be shut off at night.  It takes written FRA approval to shut down a signaling system.  That means that the lone night time train would require a third shift dispatcher.  Hardly an effective use of money. 

The next question is what operating rules they would use.  NORAC would make the most obvious choice, and is used by NJT on their RiverLine.  Most other rulebooks are railroad specific, but NORAC provides rules which are used by multiple railroads, especially in the Northeast/Mid Atlantic region. 

Time Seperations

I’ve talked a lot about light rail intermixed with freight traffic and I’m not a big fan of these types of operations, except in cases where the freight operating window is very narrow (think a few hours) because of the FRA requirement of a “temporal separation” between freight traffic and light-rail passenger operations.  If you’re going to run a commuter service, then in my mind it should be heavy rail, but that’s another discussion for another post. 

If this operation is envisioned to be a purely commuter style operation, then the separation called for by the FRA isn’t a big problem.  Passenger trains would operate mostly into the city during the day and out of the city at night.  Operations would end probably somewhere around 8 or 9 PM, allowing the AVR to serve its customers, and would then begin early in the morning. 

The problem with this is, however, it limits the operation’s effectiveness for TOD and also in getting people out of their cars on nights and weekends.  What’s the attraction to living close to transit that doesn’t operate when you need it (outside of work)?

If this operation is to be, as some have painted it, as an intra-city link to move people from downtown to the Strip/Lawrenceville area, then this could be a challenge (not to mention I question this operation’s value in that capacity).  A subsequent separation or several separations would have to occur on a daily basis for this to work.  For example, a certain portion of the line (say above Oakmont) could be made available for freight operation after a given time (10 PM for example), while the southern portion could remain off-limits to freight until a later time (1 AM, for example).  One problem with this, however, is that the northern portion of the line is isolated.  AVR trains must enter at one of two spots, the first around 33rd St. which uses their own rails, or via NS’s Brilliant Branch, which would require further trackage rights and an extended back-up move. 

To accomplish this, another window would have to be established, earlier, say after rush hour but before the “nightlife” kicks in.  Passenger operations would have to be banned entirely during this period and all passenger equipment clear of the line and properly secured.  The AVR could then enter the line and travel north towards New Kensington.  Once the train cleared a certain point (say a controlled point in or around Oakmont) AND a certain time was reached, passenger operations could then resume on the southern portion of the line until later that evening, when passenger operations would be suspended for the evening and the AVR could service customers south of Oakmont.  See the list below for a (hopefully) better explanation.

6AM to 7 PM-Passenger only operation.  No freight operation allowed*
7 PM to 8 PM-Freight only operation, no passenger operation allowed**
8PM to 1 AM-North of Oakmont:  Freight only operation, no passenger operation allowed. 
8PM to 1 AM-South of Oakmont:  Passenger only operation, no passenger operation allowed.
1 AM to 6 AM Freight only, no passenger operations   

Clearly it’s doable but complicated.  I’ve heard of an FRA waiver that could be applied for to allow simultaneous operation, but I don’t know how practical this is considering NJT’s RiverLine was supposed to be operated in this manner but could is still operated with the time separation after 6+ years of operation. 

I did a little more digging and found out that the RiverLine is operating under waivers.  However, it's not as straightforward as I thought.  Apparently a waiver is required just to let freight trains use an interlocking or controlled point that has a physical connection to the RiverLine (ridiculous).  Additionally, it appears that a waiver is required for a freight train to even operate on a separate but parallel track to an active light rail track (also ridiculous).  New Jersey Transit and Conrail were approved for these waivers and are operating under them, but these waivers do NOT allow for freight traffic to operate on the same track at the same time as passenger traffic.

These waivers would certainly have an effect on AVR's operation.  The freight would have to enter at a controlled point, remotely controlled by a dispatcher.

View AVR Freight Connection in a larger map

 The AVR also has a track that continues over the Allegheny River and interchanges with the Buffalo and Pittsburgh at Bakerstown, PA.  Because this line (the former B&O Railroad P&W sub) sees freight traffic on an as needed basis and because there is a physical connection between this line and AVR's proposed service, a waiver would be required.

The whole issue of temporal separation could be avoided by dedicating one track to freight and one to passenger.  The line was at one time double track so it is possible, but again, some sort of waiver would be required.  

*This means that no heavy freight cars, engines or trains can move on or occupy any main track, and must be secured against movement

**This means that no passenger trains can move on or occupy any main track, and must be secured against movement.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

High Speed Fallout

There’s been a ton of talk about the changes in the political winds and how it’s going to affect transportation Western Pennsylvania.  Those winds have also been felt on the national level.  The shift to the right in other states has brought some potentially huge impacts to Obama’s national HSR plan and will impact the Pittsburgh region.

There’s a really interesting battle going on in Wisconsin right now.  The Governor-elect has pledged to end the HSR project and has asked the DOT to allow the state to re-appropriate the funds.  Additionally, TALGO had set up a manufacturing plant to build HSR equipment for Wisconsin and other states.  It appears that they stand to lose the manufacturer and the money ($810 million) if the governor follows through with his plans.  

Of a more immediate impact to the Pittsburgh region is the election of a new Governor in Ohio, John Kasich.  Part of his platform from the start was to kill the 3C Corridor.  He has pledged to keep this promise and end the project.  This is a much bigger blow to Western Pennsylvania than other HSR developments, as the next step after completion of the primary corridor was a connection from Pittsburgh to both Cleveland and to Columbus, creating a triangle of passenger service in Ohio.  For the last few years, Ohio has seemed more intent on getting better rail service to Pittsburgh than Pennsylvania was, and now that seems to have flown out the window as well.  As with Wisconsin, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has vowed to take back all funding given to Ohio, to the tune of $400 million and put it back in the national HSR pot. 

This is immediately bad for Western Pennsylvania.  Our local transit system appears to be taking a huge nosedive, and it looks like our regional connections will remain status quo, at best for the foreseeable future.  Pennsylvania’s HSR grant this summer in relation to Pittsburgh was miniscule ($800K) and was only to do some very preliminary studies on the NS’s route from Harrisburg west to Pittsburgh. 

With our emerging ally to the west seemingly switching sides, and a further shift in our state government to the right (a traditionally un-friendly group towards transportation other than the automobile) it’s not looking good for the home team. 

Our one bright spot, at this point, is that the money appears to be going back into the pot.  It will take time to re-receive applications for appropriations and to go through the approval process.  While Pennsylvania does not have any “shovel ready” projects, perhaps we can use this bought time to advance our cause. 

Knowing our state government, I’m not holding my breath, but it’s a chance.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Done


Not good, not good at all...

Bad to Worse

Everyone knew about the transit cuts coming in March.  First off, it looks like those are a done deal, unless something drastic happens in Harrisburg in the next few days (I’m not holding my breath).  Now it looks like they are trying to plan ahead for 2012.  With the new sheriff in town who has pledged not to raise taxes, no matter what (I’m very interested to see how that is supposed to work given the horrid state of our infrastructure, and massive budget shortfalls). 

The Port Authority said it was too early to discuss the scope of a second round of cuts (right now slated for July 2011), but it’s on the horizon unless something changes. 

Depressing, that’s all I can say about this whole situation.  After the optimism of two years ago, all we hear about are landmark cuts and the bad news we already knew about.  What is most frustrating is that it’s easy and politically attractive to say cut cut cut spending.  Meanwhile, we are sitting on an infrastructure time bomb that is ticking away.  Further cuts will only cause the timer to speed up, as increased automobile traffic resulting from further transit cuts on the roads of Western Pennsylvania will only increase the wear and tear on our already worn out roads and bridges.  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

AVR Commuter News

Fisrt things first, I am really going to finish my “expert” analysis of the AVR’s Commuter line, I swear.

In the meantinme…

The AVR Rail proposal has popped up again.  The city got a grant for redevelopment or greening of a ribbon of land heading from the Strip through Lawrenceville. 

Check out the article here.

.The total funding was $1.5 million.  It isn’t explicitly stated, but the most of the amount seems to be going to building the greenway.  Relocating sidings and industries is noted, but that seems to allow for the greenway, not to facilitate commuter rail.

Still, the fact remains that AVR’s commuter service was mentioned hand in hand with this.  Questions of funding still remain un-answered, and because there is currently no public money involved, there is no study or project plan available to the public. 

This is all well and good, but again, I see limited value in integrating this into the greenway.  I am not questioning the greenway or the value of building up our transit infrastructure, I am merely questioning the value of AVR’s proposal to making transportation better IN Pittsburgh.  A commuter style route to the suburbs is fine for, well, commuters, but not to bring residents to another neighborhood in the city.  What you'll most likely end up with is residents of the city using buses, driving or biking to reach this new development when all is said and done.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Public Hearing: The Day After

I won’t rehash the many arguments made at the hearing yesterday.  They all have their merits, and each covered a small piece of why public transportation is a PUBLIC SERVICE and is absolutely indispensable if we want our city to remain a great place to live and work. 

However, I cannot emphasize this point enough:  Public Comment is NOT over.  Let’s hope the 200+ speakers from yesterday’s public hearing is not even the tip of the iceberg.  

You can mail in your comment to: 

Port Authority Fare & Service Proposals
Heinz 57 Center, 345 Sixth Avenue, Floor 3 
Pittsburgh PA 15222-2527

For those of you that are more technologically inclined, you can fill out an online submission form here.  

If you use public transportation in Allegheny County, and enjoy the mobility you have, PLEASE make your voice heard.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Make Time

If you’re angry about the Port Authority’s funding being slashed and subsequent slashes to service….make time

If you don’t want to see residents that rely on this public service lose access to service and thereby lose their mobility…make time

If you are upset that the politicians that represent you are spineless and care more about not making a splash amongst potential voters than actually helping their constituents…make time

If you are unhappy that full time funding for transportation in this state was dangled in front of your face like a carrot, only to be pulled away…make time

If you are tired of yahoos from Central Pennsylvania whining about how their taxes go to those big city folk for their fancy buses, when if fact, we big city folk help pay for their roads…make time

You can go and testify, or log on and comment there.  Just like with the Connect '09 initiative, you have a chance to be heard and a chance to make your voice, and your opinions count.  You can be damn sure that I’ll be putting in my two cents.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Really? You're using this?

Poor, poor NSC.  It’s been the regional whipping boy for years now.  It’s taken the leap to the national political stage.  Here’s the article.

I’m no NSC cheerleader, but realize that it’s already near complete and will provide value to the region.  Check out this post for a more detailed opinion.

This is absolutely ridiculous.  Don’t use the NSC as your political pawn to validate your political agenda.  The NSC is not representative of the bailout, and the way in which it is presented is just plain misleading. 

The NSC is such a tiny piece of the overall stimulus package ($62.5 million out of $ 800 odd BILLION dollars).  I could probably find just as many examples of the Stimulus program helping to stimulate job growth as you could find examples like the NSC, but that is not the point of this post.

People constantly argue that the NSC should not have been built, but it was.  If they would have had to stop the project, the 4000 or so jobs related to this project would have been prematurely ended (while the economy was at its worst) and the Port Authority would have inherited tunnels that it could not use but still had to pay for.  You could argue that the cost per rider will be expensive, and it will, but PAT will at least re-coop at least some money through ridership.  If no one is using the tunnels because they could not be completed, then no money is being re-cooped and the tunnels and other related infrastructure would just be sitting there, unused and eating up dwindling Port Authority funding (it still costs money to maintain infrastructure, even if its not in use, especially tunnels that could collapse if not maintained). 

Finally, and here’s the biggest issue I have with this.  You want to blame an administration for the NSC?  Fine, blame the Bush Administration.*  That administration approved the project and funded it to the tune of $348 million (80% of the projected cost at the time of approval).  I could argue that had the Bush administration not agreed to award the money, then the project would not have to be bailed out because it was over budget due to inflation.  I could say that this is another example of the Obama administration having to “bailout” a decision made by the Bush administration.  If you want to look strictly at the numbers of how much each administration has spent on the NSC; the Bush administration spent a lot more on the project than the Obama administration has.  

I am not actually trying to make that statement, but it’s about as accurate as someone saying “look at the NSC, it's bad, it got bailed out by Obama's bailout, Obama’s bailout is bad.”  The point is, the project needed to get finished, and no matter who is in the oval office now, the money probably would have been spent to finish the project.  The funding also just happened to come from Stimulus funding.  If that would not have been available, it probably would have come from somewhere else.

Politics in this country is disgusting.  Nothing can be taken at face value, because nothing is ever presented at face value.  Every “fact” is tilted, twisted and wrung out until it matches an ideology. 

*Blaming the Bush Administration for DOT’s approval of the NSC is just as foolish as directly blaming the Obama Administration for the use of bailout money on the NSC.  I would wager that neither President had direct knowledge of the physical approval for either instance.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Breaking Down the AVR Proposal Part 1

I’ve been critical of AVR’s plan for commuter rail.  That’s not to say that there isn’t value to what they are doing.  With that in mind I’ve put together some of what I feel are issues/risks/opportunities for this proposal.  I broke the proposal down into construction and operation.  The first installment will cover construction and each section will lay out potential issues and opportunities (if applicable) 

Keep in mind as well, there is no public report available for this.  I’ve gathered my ideas and thoughts through articles and material available on the internet.  There are no concrete figures save the $171million “private loan” and the $228 million overall cost.  Beyond that, there is currently no detail available. 



There aren’t many major issues with the construction of stations from Arnold, PA to 26th St. in the Strip. 

There are just a couple of concerns that I think it is important to highlight.

Tarentum Bridge Stop:  One of the issues AVR has apparently taken with the current Commuter Rail study is the lack of a stop past the current end of track in Arnold, PA.  They want to extend the route, approximately a mile north along the river to a stop around the Tarentum Bridge.    

While I don’t have a problem with this in theory, geography makes implementation tricky, and probably expensive.  The east side of the Allegheny River under the bridge is just a thin strip of flat land, with a steep hillside to one side and the river to the other.  There is enough land for at least one track, as this is the former PRR Railroad Allegheny Division right of way.  The tracks are gone, but the right of way is still intact.  However, there is little room for a station with parking and multiple tracks.  Additionally, gaining auto access to this strip of land would be challenging.  If the designers envision direct access from the Tarentum bridge (which I am guessing they will), steep ramps will have to be built from the bridge.  These ramps will need to provide enough clearance for Tugs to operate underneath them.  It can be done, but it would be expensive.  Again, there is no word whether this cost is included in the $228 million figure quoted in the Trib/Post Gazette. 

Another option that could be used would be to either make an access road off of Lower Braeburn Road in Lower Burrell or move the station further north so that it would be situated at the bottom of Lower Braeburn Road.  Both of these have potential issues as well.  I am still not sure there’s enough room underneath the bridge itself for a station, even without using ramps off of the bridge.  Also, with the second option, you will lose the convenience option.  I am betting they are trying to capitalize on the ease of travel to the Tarentum Bridge and therefore maximize on ridership.  If people have to drive out of their way to get to a station that is isolated by geography then there is no real reason to spend the money to put it there.

26th St. Intermodal Terminal:  26th Street is a decision point for the AVR.  They will either keep to their ROW to 16th street, or leave their right of way at 26th St, travel at grade on 26th street and join the Busway on the far side of Liberty.  

If the latter is chosen, this point could become particularly important.  According to this idea, an intermodal terminal would be built at 26th street and the AVR would possibly interchange with an LRT line coming up from downtown (don’t ask me how this would happen…)

The nearby property owners will become important in this instance.  A light rail vehicle can’t just hang a left at an intersection and the Strip is filled with dense development..  To get an idea of what it takes to turn a light rail vehicle, see the below map.

  Land will have to be acquired and buildings potentially demolished.  This is sure to meet with resistance from local business/property owners.  This will add to the already expensive costs of terminal facility construction in an urban environment.

Right of Way Construction:

One advantage that AVR has is that of an existing ROW.  (ahh the joys of existing infrastructure).  They already own the property and the tracks.  All they have to do is upgrade it.  They will have to add stations, passing sidings, signaling, and probably upgrade the road crossing protection over what they currently have.  While still expensive, the hard part (ROW acquisition) is already taken care of. 

That is until…

you get to 26th St
As discussed before, the AVR may elect to continue using their right of way and easement to reach 16th St.  If this is the case, while not ideal for operations it is ideal from a cost standpoint. 

The other option would be to operate at grade on 26th St. across Liberty where it would run on (or alongside) the Busway to the Penn Center Station and onto Steel Plaza.  This option could end up being very costly, and may not be physically feasible at all. 

As I alluded to earlier, a train doesn’t turn on a dime.  The line would have to curve to meet 26th St, and again, would probably have to cross a privately owned parking lot.  The AVR would then need permission to dig up the entirety of 26th Street to lay rail.  This would involve closing off Liberty Ave and Penn Ave to dig up the pavement and lay rails. 

I don’t know the timeframe for how long these roads would have to be disrupted for or the cost to install rails and update the traffic control equipment (both for auto traffic and trains). 

The going gets tougher once across Liberty Ave.  There is currently a bridge across the NS Pittsburgh Line that buses use to access the Busway.  There is a grade after Liberty to get over this bridge.  If trains are to use this they must make sure the grade is not too steep to operate.  They also have to ensure that the bridge is rated.  Remember, Light Rail is a relative term (River LINE style cars are approx 20 tons) and they are crossing a highway style bridge.  Assuming those requirements are met the ramp will have to be dug up and tracks laid.

The next challenge is the Busway itself.  After having to emplace a hard right hand curve at the Busway end of the bridge, the line will have to deal with the Busway itself.  This is not privately owned and is owned by the Port Authority.  They must agree to allow tracks to be put into place on their route.  (There is also no indication whether PAT will or won’t be responsible for operating this AVR service).  Again, IF PAT agrees to this request, the Busway will have to be torn up and tracks laid.   As the route would near the Penn Center Station, there is more room and the two routes could operate parallel to each other. 

An additional problem would face this proposal south of the Penn Center Station.  Soon after the station, the T ROW into Steel Plaza goes underground and stays that way for the 1000 or so feet to Steel Plaza.  This would mean that diesel propulsion may not be practical.  At the very least cars would not be allowed to idle in Steel Plaza, and may not be able to be operated underground at all without an electrical back up or third rail system.  Although this would be a short distance requirement, it still would mean additional infrastructure and vehicle costs.  Also, tracks would have to be re-laid because of gauge difference. 

A final construction issue is future T service to the East.  I know it’s a pipe dream, but there has always been talk of making the East Busway into a T line.  Right now that possibility will always be there.  If you built a different gauge line in from the East, you are removing that possibility. 

It’s clear there are some challenges.  I like the idea of the line going all the way to Steel Plaza.  This line is unlikely to ever be able to link in with a like mode of transportation.  Giving people ready access to the T and East Busway to get elsewhere in the city is critical if this service is going to succeed.  It’ seems as though construction is feasible.  The question right now is; is it practical?  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'll Pull My Funding if You Pull Yours

As I stated in my previous post and now that I've had a little time to calm down; I am 100% in support of pulling all state funding from the Port Authority (and SEPTA for that matter) with the caveat that the state no longer maintain any roads or fund any new roads.  Counties and municipalities would be on the hook to maintain all existing roads and fund any new road construction or expansion, to include limited access highways without the help of state funds. 

It’s hard to hypothesize what this would be like because it is unprecedented.  It's even harder to imagine how it would be all funded; not a pretty scenario given our auto-centric society. 

The only real “case study” of this is E-470 in Eastern Colorado.  It’s a Public/Private limited access highway that extends from Meridian, CO southeast of Denver, past Denver International to Broomfield, CO, northeast of Denver.  It’s basically a half moon shaped highway which forms the eastern half of a beltway around Denver.  Its western half was built and is maintained by the State of Colorado. 

E470 is maintained and tolled by a private company and has a public board consisting of the municipalities that the road travels through.  They set toll rates and oversee the operation and finances of the E470 highway. 

As of 2009 the average toll is 31 cents per mile for a two axle vehicle.    The toll is higher if it is a tandem axle vehicle.  The road was built and financed through private bonds and cost approx. $ 1.23 Billion dollars or about $25,751,072.96 per mile ($1.2 billion/46.6 miles)

If we take that $.31 per mile and say we drive five miles back and forth (a total of 10) each day to work.  The total per day would be $3.10.  Driving the route 5 times a week would cost us $ 15.50.  Driving 50 weeks out of the year would cost $775. 

In our current system, a person could avoid tolls altogether by using a publicly funded road that may parallel this limited access highway.  However, if all roads were locally funded, avoiding this toll may not be possible.

Again, this is just a small example using available information.  However, if local municipalities had to pay for new road construction and road maintenance (including limited access) they would be hard pressed to fund those requirements.  Those requirements would make a system such as the E470 highway entirely possible on a larger scale.  In this case, that $775.00 could be and most likely would be MUCH higher. 

Even if a system like the E470 weren’t adopted on a wide scale, communities would have to garner the revenue somehow. In that case, it's likely that local governments would resort to the thing that everyone hates to begin with; taxes.

So, once again, anyone willing to trade privatized transit for privatized roads, I’m all for it.  That way everyone can finally see that no form of human transportation, be it automotive, rail, air, or bus is un-subsidized.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Not Good at All...

I have to agree with the sentiment of my friend over at Politics and Place on this one.

This is bullshit!

Port Authority has announced MASSIVE cuts.  If you ride transit, you will be affected.  Check out the article. Here are the changes.  Public comment has been scheduled for August 19th.  Be there if you give a crap about transit in Pittsburgh.

Also, talk to your state representative.  They are the root of this problem.  Tell them you think it's unacceptable to place public transit's head on the block to save their own heads at the ballot box.

To my new friend from Hempfield Twp.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander:  You don't want to pay for transit in Pittsburgh and Philly?  Fine, I don't want to pay for your roads.  Not an penny of state funding should go to your hard working, poor, innocent, and abused constituents in Central PA who are road bound.  Let them pay for their own road maintenance and new road building costs.  No state grants; no money for state roads, no nothing. Maybe God and the Tea Party will fix your roads for you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

AVR "River Line" Map

Check ahhhht this new Google Map of AVR's proposed transit line, which I have nick-named the "AVR River Line" after NJT's version from Trenton to Camden, NJ.

View AVR's "River Line" in a larger map

Coming soon:  a breakdown of the challenges/opportunities for AVR's proposal.