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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The AVR Saga Continues

I couldn’t resist.  I had to write something after I saw the latest Article in the Trib about the AVR.*  As if that wasn’t enough, there was a follow up article in the City Paper. 

To sum it up: AVR wants to implement service from Arnold to  Steel City Plaza via their current right of way from Arnold to the Strip, breaking off (and I’m assuming) using street trackage on 26th St, crossing Liberty and using the East Busway to gain access to Steel Plaza.  They want to do this because: #1 They feel access to Steel Plaza will provide the greatest intermodality (can’t argue that, given the context) and #2 struggles with property owner below 21st ST (Buncher) continue, even though the STB ruled in favor of AVR owning the easement to their ROW in the lower Strip. 

A couple thoughts on the Trib article: 
I wonder if the Allegheny/Westmoreland County commuter proposal has really “lost steam” as the article suggests.  Granted, not much has been said about it lately, but throughout this planning process, there have been large gaps in time between updates. 

I also get the impression that really no one is on board with the AVR’s proposal, accept the AVR.  County and Port Authority officials seem to be awfully quiet about the whole thing. 

Then the City Paper article popped up.  This article brought up further issues, such as the proposed Buncher TOD development in the Strip.  Included in this was talk of an LRT line to Lawrenceville.  Additionally, the article questioned the validity and thoroughness of AVR’s study on connecting their transit line with Steel City Plaza.  There was no mention of the Allegheny/Westmoreland Commuter Rail proposal in this article. 

A couple thoughts on the CP article:  
Wow, the plot thickens.  I had seen articles about the proposed development in the Strip but had not heard talk about an LRT line to Lawrenceville.  I have to wonder where exactly that all came from (aside from Patrick Dowd’s mouth).  Considering PAT nixed the convention center spur, I don’t know how likely this line to Lawrenceville would be.  I’m certainly not opposed to the idea; however, I'm not holding my breath for them to build one.  Consider that the first Spine Line Study was completed in 1993.  Nearly twenty years later, we are close to having a tiny portion of what was supposed to be the Spine Line (The NSC).

My overall thoughts:  
There have been many developments in a short amount of time.  In addition, I’m not exactly sure what is really going on vs. what is conjecture.  Nothing is guaranteed at this point, not even AVR’s plan.  Dowd’s comments are right on about wanting to increase connectivity within the city, not just into and out of the city.  For my money, I’d rather see an extension to Oakland, transformation of the busway to LRT, or an LRT line to Lawrenceville through the strip before commuter rail. 

Additionally, I have to wonder where the commuter rail plan stands.  Again, if AVR forges ahead as is, they will be creating a single line transit system that will be limited in how it can tie in with other forms of transportation within the region.  You will never have a system of these lines in Pittsburgh where you can get from one point in the region to another (beyond Arnold to Pittsburgh).  A heavy type commuter rail would at least give the ability to operate inter-mixed with freight traffic, and would make the dream of having a system from one end of the county to the other at least a possibility.  As unlikely as that may seem, it is still MORE likely than a similar system using River Line style light rail. 

Having said that, any project that would decrease the number of vehicles on the road and the amount of time that people spend in cars would be welcome.  Commuter rail can spur TOD.  If someone moves to a walkable community near a train station from a suburban cul de sac because it provides access to the city that in itself is a victory.  Oakmont isn’t in the city, but it’s a perfect, ready made TOD community (with the exception of a super market, but I digress).  It would certainly not be a bad thing to expand a walkable community like Oakmont. 

Additionally, as a commenter In the City Paper article suggests, a golden opportunity to generate support for a commuting alternative is being missed here.  Route 28 sees 60,000 cars a day.  Route 28 is also undergoing major construction.  If even 10% of those people are convinced to try AVR’s transit line, that would be a great start to establishing a well patronized and effective commuter alternative.  If some sort of system were not started until, say 2014-2015 time frame, then people would be much less likely to ditch their cars.

As always, I guess the bottom line is:  The more we stand around and talk, the more things don’t change.

*As an aside, I like how the Trib gets their barbs in there specifically about the Port Authority and publicly funded transportation. 
Ardolino said the venture would not ask for funding from the cash-strapped transit agency.
"We're trying to keep Port Authority out of this equation," he said. "They have a role, but we'd rather not burden the authority any further."”

Then the subtle jab against publicly funded transportation at the end:
 "I'd be all for it if it would be mostly self-supporting,"
 Of all the quotes during interviews, I find it curious that this one is the one they would include...