» Connection between Pennsylvania’s second and third largest business districts, as well as new people mover in Oakland, would be sponsored by property redevelopment.
Detroit’s use of hundreds of millions of dollars in non-profit funds for the construction of its new Woodward Avenue light rail line is already encouraging cities across the country to think differently about how they raise funds for new transit lines. With limited public money to spend on the expansion of its public transportation system, Pittsburgh hopes to encourage private investors to make an investment in two corridors: one connecting downtown and Oakland, and the other linking Oakland’s primary university and business centers.
Allegheny County Executive Director Dan Onorato, who leads Pittsburgh and much of its suburban area, has worked for the creation of a task force that has asked developers to submit expressions of interest in the proposed transit program by the end of April. In exchange for the construction of the new transit lines, local agencies including the Urban Redevelopment Authority will offer private entities the right to redevelop parcels along the routes. The system would likely not be operated by the region’s financially strapped Port Authority, which runs the area’s light rail and bus lines.
The primary new corridor would extend from downtown Pittsburgh’s job hub at Steel Plaza, through the Bluff neighborhood to Oakland, along Centre Avenue, Second Avenue, or a combination of Colwell Street and Fifth Avenues. This roughly 3-mile project, probably light rail, could also be built as a people mover or bus corridor. In Oakland, the city’s second downtown and home to a number of universities, a 2-mile people mover line would extend from the Pittsburgh Tech Center on the Monongahela River to Carnegie Mellon University, past the University of Pittsburgh. Future phases could extend across the river to the South Shore and north to Upper Campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Shadyside.
According to preliminary estimates, the fully developed intra-Oakland network would serve more than 100,000 riders a day by 2030.
Though developers have yet to respond to the offer, the city could benefit from this public-private partnership both by increasing its local transportation offerings and provoking infill reconstruction of some of the rather degraded neighborhoods between downtown and Oakland. The city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority own an extraordinary percentage of the land in the Hill District and Bluff neighborhoods, and they have a number of new housing projects underway. With better transit and the reuse of the vacant parcels by private developers, these forgotten zones could see a veritable renaissance.
The specifics of the route have yet to be worked out, but the intentions behind the project are clear: to increase transit use among people who work in Oakland from 30% today to 50%, the same as in downtown; regenerate the neighborhoods east of downtown; and provide a stimulus for increased construction in Oakland, which already has the region’s highest population densities.
For a region that has invested millions of dollars in some rather extravagant transit projects, including the North Shore Connector (currently under construction) and the Pittsburgh Maglev project (perennially being considered), the downtown-Oakland project seems quite reasonable since there is no rapid transit between the two today. That said, a rapid bus service is planned and a busway serves the northern section of the corridor.
Executive Onorato’s project’s primary aim, which is basically to densify the urban core, is unquestionably a good one, since the city as a whole has lost more than half its population since its peak in 1950.
But the project as currently outlined has a number of potential weaknesses. For one, it seems to encourage the use of different technologies for the downtown-Oakland and intra-Oakland corridors. This will result in a problem that will reduce ridership tremendously: the light rail line heading from downtown won’t provide access to the primary Oakland destinations, meaning most riders will have to transfer to the people mover line to finish their trips.
The city is uninterested in promoting the extension of light rail along the intra-Oakland line because it’s unwilling to sacrifice the necessary street space, which is why it is suggesting the construction of an elevated people mover above the corridor. Pittsburgh planners aren’t suggesting some sort of light guideway personal rapid transit line: this system will have to accommodate vehicles carrying 150 people at a time every three minutes. This design would do serious harm to the walkability of the neighborhood by inserting imposing structures above many primary pedestrian corridors.
Another option is to extend the people mover system all the way from Oakland to downtown, allowing people in downtown direct, non-stop service to Oakland destinations. This has some major advantages: it would allow drivers to park at planned park-and-rides in Oakland and get to jobs downtown via transit, alleviating road congestion. It would also reduce operations costs because the people mover, unlike a light rail line, would be conducted automatically.
This strategy, however, has its own issues: not only would it extend the street-deadening condition caused by overhead-running rapid transit, but it would also prevent through-running of light rail trains from South Hills and Library to Oakland, via downtown’s Steel Plaza, one of the primary advantages of using that vehicular mode. Requiring riders to make a connection between light rail and people mover downtown would cut down the number of potential users significantly.
One possibility not fully considered by the task force is operating the system as a light rail line in an independent right-of-way from downtown to Oakland and then operate as a streetcar using vehicular lanes within Oakland. This would slow commutes but allow direct service between places throughout the region. There is an inherent advantage in sticking to the transit mode you already have.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how private companies respond to Pittsburgh’s land-for-transit offer. It will be their dollars, after all, that determine how the system is constructed. What mode of transit will they promote as the most appropriate to spur infill development?
If the project succeeds, cities throughout the American Rust Belt will rush to emulate its strategy, hoping to bring to life their many vacant and disinherited neighborhoods similar to those in Pittsburgh and expand the transportation options of their citizens.
Image above: Downtown Pittsburgh-Oakland Transit Alternatives Map, from Allegheny County Economic Development