News that a federal program that funds transit might be ending isn’t deterring Pittsburgh officials from pushing forward with a $195 million bus rapid transit project. Nor is opposition from local transit advocates.
Allegheny County officials were counting on money from the Capital Investment Grants program, which President Trump proposed eliminating in his infrastructure plan in order to pay for highways, airports and railroads. Without that funding, the future of the project is uncertain. Allegheny County Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph says that the high marks the BRT project received from the Federal Transit Administration could help it get other federal funding.” “We’re using the momentum of that high score to push forward,” he says. “It clearly shows that it’s a worthwhile project.”
The 3-mile BRT line will run between downtown and the Oakland neighborhood, the region’s two biggest job centers. The system would have standard BRT elements such as bus-only lanes, traffic signal prioritization and off-board fare payment, which would help cut peak travel times in half to about 10 minutes. Allegheny County Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph says the corridor currently serves about 30,000 people a day and that the “primary goal …is to better handle those crush loads where you have standing room only on buses during rush hour.”
Transit service is not the only stated goal of the project. The Port Authority—the agency in charge of the region’s transit operations—is working with the city of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the city’s economic development agency. Part of the project funding would be used to upgrade stormwater infrastructure, sidewalks and street lighting in the Uptown neighborhood along the route to encourage development.
Officials do not have a plan C yet, if zero federal funding comes through. But local transit advocates were raising concerns with the BRT project even before Trump’s proposal threatened to eliminate federal support.
“As transit advocates, there are certainly things to like about BRT,” says Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “We definitely like the idea of bus only lanes and transit signal prioritization and electric buses. The sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure improvements all make sense to us.”
But, she continues, “Our concern is it’s a huge capital investment project that’s undermining transit service for our most transit-dependent riders.”
Residents in the Mon Valley, an area made up of post-industrial, inner-ring suburban communities east of the city, are worried that the Port Authority plans to cut key bus service to help fund BRT. Many of the former steel towns are predominantly black and have high rates of poverty.
The area is served by three local bus lines—the 61A, B and C—that run from the Mon Valley to downtown. Wiens says that the Port Authority has discussed reducing service hours for the lines and ending the routes at Oakland, where riders would have to transfer to the BRT or another line to get to downtown. Transfers cost $1 if riders are using the regional Connect smart card, but cost a full $2.75 for cash riders. Many low-income riders use cash in part because living check to check makes it difficult to load up a fare card in advance and because there aren’t many Connect Card stations in the Mon Valley.
“Two transfers quickly becomes a prohibitive cost for people,” says Wiens. “There should be direct service from communities to downtown. We know that transfers can be a barrier for seniors and disabled riders even if they’re free.”
Pittsburghers for Public Transit plans to continue lobbying the Port Authority to have more public meetings with Mon Valley residents, maintain service levels on the 61, maintain a direct route to downtown from the Mon Valley and install more Connect Card infrastructure in the area.
Brandolph says the authority hasn’t made final decisions about the changes to bus service that will come with the launch of BRT and that they’ve planned more public meetings next month in response to Mon Valley residents’ calls for more engagement on the issues.
It could be a while before Pittsburgh knows the fate of its federal funding. It is ultimately up to Congress to decide whether to cut FTA funding and the Congressional budget process likely won’t be complete until the fall. Brandolph says they’re hoping to have funding secured by the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019 and have BRT up and running in 2021.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.