Finance Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Hopes for Privately Funded Transit Connection to Oakland

» 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

19 replies on “Pittsburgh Hopes for Privately Funded Transit Connection to Oakland”

Why the city would be considering anything but an extension of the existing light-rail system to provide service to Oakland is beyond me. Light rail is proven technology, and would be ideal for Pittsburgh, which basically grew up around the trolley system. The Downtown-Oakland link (connecting two of the densest and most popular destinations in the city) would have high ridership, and would be inadequately served by BRT or “people movers”. If street space is an issue, a subsurface or aerial alignment should be considered. Doing a cut-and-cover tunnel under Oakland would have to be vastly cheaper than the deep-bore tunnel they just dug under the river.

In my opinion, the city should have resolved the lack of LRT service to Oakland before they undertook connection with the North Side. (Of course, where they really went wrong was failing to build the 5th Avenue “spine” heavy rail subway line back in the 1920’s, which would have connected Oakland, Downtown, and the North Side (Allegheny City, then a fashionable neighborhood).

The city should also look into extending LRT service to the airport, South Side, and Strip District, as well as making it a more attractive option for North Side commuters by extending it further along the Ohio River towards Manchester and Belleview. A comprehensive transit system would go a long toward attracting new residents to the city and improving its tax base.

“The city should also look into extending LRT service to the airport, South Side, and Strip District, as well as making it a more attractive option for North Side commuters by extending it further along the Ohio River towards Manchester and Belleview.”

Personally, i think the best, and most efficient option in extending the system to the airport would be to do precisely what you suggested here: take the North Shore connecter, run it along the Ohio towards Manchester and Belleview, to Neville Island and Mckees Rocks. You’re really just a hop, skip and a jump from the airport from there, and you get to really connect Neville Island and Mckees Rocks to the rest of the city.

It’s nice to try and be creative, but I’ll believe private sector interest in transit investment when I see real dollars on the table. I find it difficult to believe that Pittsburgh has enough property value to offer to make transit capital investments pencil out for land developers.

Also I agree that LRT/streetcar (ideally in subway, if the street capacity is so limited) is the way to go in these neighborhoods.

“I find it difficult to believe that Pittsburgh has enough property value to offer to make transit capital investments pencil out for land developers.”

We’ll have to see, but this is rather a unique case. Downtown and Oakland are the second and third most important business districts in Pennsylvania, and both are doing relatively well even in this recession. They are also both constrained by topography and existing development from expansion in most directions. But it happens that in the relatively short distance between them, there is lots of developable land.

So the development potential for that particular area is plausibly quite extraordinary, if it can be unlocked. Of course there are varying explanations for why it hasn’t been unlocked yet, and one would have to be confident those causes had either been addressed or were no longer operative. But I don’t think it is implausible that the timing is now right, at least with the right transit investments, to develop that area.

…and if they’d just built a streetcar extension instead of the East Busway, they wouldn’t be talking about this right now, because they’d already have service. :-(

Pittsburgh is a frightening example of bad transit planning, though not as bad as Miami or Detroit.

I remember seeing photos of their streetcars on a website and if I was going to invest money in a metro system I would extend the existing light rail lines and have the light rail trains look like their classic streetcars. I don’t see why they are companing about not running streetcars in the streets. Sometimes cars don’t belong in downtown areas. I think people would like to see light rail and streetcars vs a elvated thing over the street.

Much of the new business growth in Pittsburgh is happening around Oakland, due to the ties to the universities mainly CMU and Pitt. Google, Apple, medical related companies, and many start ups have established themselves around Oakland. A light rail would be very beneficial if it could draw some of these companies to downtown and the rest of Pittsburgh, while still feeling like Oakland and the universities were accessible to them.

I believe that an elevated system within Oakland is a complete non-starter. Streets in this area are typically surrounded by either 10-15 story buildings or absolutely gorgeous parks. The densely developed streets would be turned into tunnels and views of the civic buildings set back from streets within the parks would be ruined. Furthermore, some of the finest monumental civic design in the country exists here. The vistas provided along Fifth and Forbes Avenues are absolutely stunning. An elevated system would utterly destroy these beautiful streets.

Fifth Avenue is five to six lanes wide through much of Oakland and already features one dedicated bus lane over much of its route between Downtown and Oakland. There is capacity on the streets for rail transit.

I’m actually not so sure an elevated design wouldn’t work with the Oakland circulator part, which is really conceived as a glorified hospital/university/tech-center shuttle, not an intermediary link in the PAT system. The way the proposed route works, it is only running along Fifth Avenue between Craft and De Soto, and then cuts down Bouquet to take the back-way/Junction-Hollow route over to CMU.

If it was running along the north/hospital/uphill side of Fifth, I’m not sure it would actually change the aesthetics of that area very much, since the hospitals and such plus the rising terrain along that stretch create a sort of wall effect anyway. Maybe Brendan will correct me, but I think that route also dodges the specific vistas he had in mind.

What are the most current costs for subway tunneling? Elevated? At-grade in street median?

I’m wondering if the costs of at-grade in median (given all the neighborhood demands) are approaching the costs of a grade seperated solution.

I understand Seattle’s LRT was about $179 mill/mile, Portland’s Milwaukie line is $191 mill/mile. I was under the impression subway was about $200-250 mill/mile outside of a CBD… is that subway cost estimate really outdated?

Seattle’s LRT was unusually expensive due to all the tunneling. At-grade LRT in the US averages $35 million per mile. Subways you can’t take an average of because most construction is in New York, where costs are out of whack. Globally, most developed countries build subways at about $300-500 million per mile, CBD or no CBD. Spain is an outlier in one direction, building subways at $130 million per mile, and Britain and Japan are outliers in the other direction, building subways at about $800 million per mile.

I looked into a recent rapid transit construction project, the Canada Line… $2 billion (CAD), works out to $1.88 billion (USD)… @(19.2 km) 11.8 miles… $1.88 billion/11.8 miles = $159 million/mile.

Entirely grade seperated, tunneling under downtown Vancouver, under False Creek, Cambie Street, new bridges over Fraser River, elevated track to Richmond and the Airport.

How can the Canada Line be so cheap? The Portland-Milwaukie MAX line is budgeted at $1.4 billion for 7.3 miles of mostly at-grade track running in a median, along a railroad corridor and along abandoned rail corridors! Its $191 million/mile!!!! And how is this so expensive?

Regardless of whether the Canada Line is a true subway, why cant we see more transit lines like it? The Pittsburgh-Oakland corridor would be a great place for an underground transit line at $159 million/mile.

I had read that the Canada Line was built by a public-private partnership (PPP) and this was the reason for the cost savings. These are commonly used in Canada and Australia, not nearly as much in the U.S. PPP’s have their own issues though; there are criticisms that the Canada Line, though completed within budget and ahead of schedule, is underbuilt (e.g., stations and platforms too small, etc.) and will be unable to accommodate any substantial increase in usage. It could be that the PPP that built the Canada line did this in order to stay within a fixed budget and construction schedule.

I agree with Poncho, an underground corridor from Downtown to Oakland would be ideal and could work using the existing LRT technology the currently connects the South Hills with Downtown Pittsburgh.

The next steps should include expansion of the LRT to the airport and conversion of the busway to LRT.

So curious. Pittsburgh is sinking half a billion bucks into a tunnel and tracks to extend its subway LRT from Downtown under the Allegheny River to the North Side.

When the partly underground, partly elevated line opens next year, two new stations will serve the baseball and football stadiums, office buildings, several museums, a casino, a junior college, and some residential.

I’m know they aren’t expecting crowds from the home games at the football stadium to fill the trains 365, and the National Aviary may not turn out to be a big draw, day in day out.

Surely the half billion sunk into this project makes the most sense when new LRT extensions feed into it. Connecting bus lines I guess they’ll get. But the city’s next LRT line is east to Oakland?

Is this a result of Pittsburgh’s interesting geography? The existing LRT lines serve the residential areas south of the Monongahela River. This new tunnel will reach north of the Allegheny River. So the next LRT line has to go east?

I’m OK with that. The line could help us tourists get from the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side out to the Carnegie Art Museum.

I can understand that they’re looking for new ways to pay for it. That half-billion dollar tunnel soaked up a few year’s worth of funding.

But I hope it is LRT that they choose, not BRT or godknowswhat. There should be huge benefits from keeping a compatible system across the city and region.

Yeah, I know, ‘use every tool in the tool box’ and all that. But OTOH, part of Southwest Airlines success is the Boeing 737. The entire fleet of SWA is 737s, nothing else, no big Boeings, and no Airbus. Mechanics train to maintain essentially one type of plane and keep one set of parts in inventory; SWA orders new 737s by the dozens.

As a once frequent visitor, I really like Pittsburgh. I hope that thoughts of BRT and Maglev don’t fry the brains of the city’s leaders. Light rail is working for Pittsburgh, and now it just needs a lot more LRT, north, east, and west.

You’ve stumbled upon it right there about Pittsburgh’s apparently asymmetric transportation system: Geography.

The topography of the land around Pittsburgh is challenging. The most dense settlements are generally in the flattest areas, which oftentimes means the river plains, but also the plateau-like areas like Oakland. In terms of development patterns, the Pittsburgh metro area tended to develop around rivers as well as various valleys where major highways/arteries were built. Pittsburgh in some ways is almost a poster-child for ribbon sprawl like this; “corridors” of development if you will.

Compounding the issue of this geography oftentimes has been the POLITICAL geography. Pittsburgh was actually at the forefront of developing an extensive people-mover-like system called Skybus in the 1960’s. It used automated bus-style vehicles on an elevated tramway. Here’s a wonderful page with information about Skybus:

Most people tend to think the idea was a classic “boondoggle” that it was too gimmicky and expensive for it’s own good. (Sound like Maglev anyone?) In reality however, the technology was basically proven, but it was local politics that ended up killing it.

So by the late 1970’s, the Port Authority of Allegheny Co. (PAAC) turned to developing a much more kosher light rail system. The South Hills system you see today is the result of community activism to modernize the streetcar system–it is built primarily on what was a former private streetcar ROW. The “outdated” streetcar system was actually at its peak was the third most extensive in North America (behind Toronto and Chicago). As the story went with so many American cities, the steetcars were systematically replaced with buses and the South Hills light rail.

The North Shore Connector Project was formed from the remains of the much-celebrated “Spine Line” plan, that called for an East-West main line of the light rail system stretching from the city’s East end neighborhoods, through downtown, and ultimately to the North Side. Following political upheaval, this plan was also scrapped. Our mayor however was fervent enough about redeveloping the North “Shore” (as it came to be called) with the new stadiums and other commercial venues, all served by an extension of the light rail line.

Sorry for the history lesson, but as you can see there has been support of a light rail line to the East End in Pittsburgh for decades, and almost a century if you include various plans for an East-West metro-style system.

I agree with you full that LRT is the way to go for the Downtown-Oakland corridor. Using Colwell Street as a ROW, it could be done cheaper by minimizing its length underground. Oakland is a very “urban” center, so underground would probably be the only way to go there.

As for other modes, currently the Port Authority is looking to develop the corridor as BRT. Personally, I can’t blame them when you cannot avoid talking about the cost of an LRT plan without using the “B” word. PAAC and the city are quite cash-strapped as it is, so I’ll take what I can get. As for a people-mover, this actually makes sense when talking about connecting Oakland to the South Side as the terrain is pretty limiting there, with a lot of funneling of car traffic. Anything else would be pretty infeasible.

If the Port Authority wants to develop the corridor for BRT then lets stick to that and the modes we already have and not compound matters by introducing a whole new one.

Pittsburgh has a chance to become the East Coast version of Portland — a poster child for transit. Those stats on transit usage now, 50% of downtown workers and 3-% of Oakland’s, wow! When the connection to the North “Shore” opens that 50% figure should grow. Next add the connection to Oakland and the east to grow it again. Maybe when and if say 66% of downtown workers use transit, then the city could go for congestion pricing. Toll the bridges to pay for even more and better transit. Well, a guy can dream can’t he?

I have read many of the recent studies on this problem and looked at costs. This article was written in 2010 and in the 5 years since, the Maglev idea has been shunned and subsequently forgotten about (yes to the one comment on it frying Pittsburgh planner’s brains). Thank you for the history lesson too, the Skybus was ahead of its time and is probably the reason why it never took off.

THE SOLUTION lies not too far away from Pittsburgh in Morgantown, WV – a small town with big town traffic problems, and one with similar geographical challenges that the Pittsburgh region faces. They have a 1970s era Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system set up there that is deemed successful albeit subsidized by WVU and many of the replacement parts must be custom made these days.

Skytran is the 21st century version of the WVU PRT system and is a combination of Maglev technology and PRT technology. It runs on an elevated ROW, which planners can debate if they like, but any long-term transit solution for this area will require an above grade solution. There just simply aren’t enough corridors to utilize given all the natural obstacles.

Being from Westmoreland County (Greensburg, the county seat is about 30 miles East of Pittsburgh) and at one time had fantastic commuter train service. That service is perhaps one of the worst in the nation and holds down the economic vitality that this region holds locked up in public policy discussions. We have a workforce issue right now in the region, and a true, effective, and well-planned transit system can solve this problem sometimes using infrastructure we already have.

Pittsburgh’s North Shore connector was a result of a backdoor deal with the Rooney family when they built the Football and Baseball stadiums there. Which, quite frankly, a rail stop to Pittsburgh’s 2 biggest venues were well overdue, so it is not so much the concept many locals had a problem with, just the price tag. For being the city of bridges, I think a lot of us were left wondering why they just didn’t do that rather than dig an expensive tunnel under the river. Regardless, the current LRT system is pretty useless if all it does is connect small parts of the downtown district together with the North Shore, Station Square, and the ensuing T line that has existed forever and have made properties down the line nice places to live with houses that hold their value. Major places are left out of the loop though like the South Side, the Waterfront, Shadyside, Oakland (obviously), Lawerenceville and East Liberty are now the hot spots for young people to live, and all these neighborhoods (Pittsburgh has over 90 neighborhoods, many all with their own downtown districts) need connected together. Yes, street cars would work – they did for the ‘glory days’ of Pittsburgh when she was a growing hub, but the road system here in the Burgh is famous for seeing where you want to go, but not actually being able to get there – whether that be how to get on a bridge, a valley, or paralyzing traffic – a reliable public transit system would solve many problems.

Sorry for the rant but I figured those who commented on this would like the 5 year update which basically can be summed up by: worst off than we were 5 years ago with no signs of life in sight. How are we supposed to attract more millenials like me to the region when we are stuck in a 1980 way of ‘the automobile will fix everything’ way of thinking. Sure, back in the day when there were only 1 car per family, traffic wasn’t a problem. Now, there are 4 cars per household and getting from one place to the next in the same region is frustrating even for a local, much less anyone visiting here. Good luck Skytran!

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