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Bus Rapid Transit Plans Roll On With Regional Support

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is a planning agency representing the 10-county area. The commissioners unanimously supported Pittsburgh’s Bus Rapid Transit project.";

Pittsburgh’s Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, plan got a financial boost Monday from a regional planning agency. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission voted unanimously to add the $196 million project to its long-term transportation plan.

The selected BRT route would run buses on dedicated lanes from Downtown to Oakland, and then mingle with other vehicles on their way to Highland Park and Greenfield. BRT will also connect to the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in Wilkinsburg. Though the system would run entirely within Pittsburgh city limits, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the project will be a boon for the region.

“Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh are the second and third largest job centers in the state,” he said. “These two areas that can link and can grow, can create more jobs and more mobility for folks whether they live in this corridor or not.”

Nearly half of the city’s 279,000 jobs are concentrated in Oakland and Downtown. The thousands of people flooding into the combined area every day for work—on buses, on bikes, on foot, in cars—creates a tremendous amount of congestion. BRT will ease those traffic snarls, and make the area more productive, said Fitzgerald.

“Having its own dedicated lane gives predictability, it gives reliability, and it gives speed,” he said. “So folks can know they can get from point A to point B much quicker, and won’t rely on their car as much.”

A proposal to extend the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway would allow Mon Valley commuters to connect to Pittsburgh and the BRT system via the final 14-mile stretch of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, approved at the last commission meeting in June. A consultant for the Port Authority recently completed a feasibility study on that extension. A Port Authority spokesperson said the results would likely be made public in a month. 

The BRT plan sets an example for the 10-county area represented by SPC, said Jim Hassinger, the commission’s executive director.

“This is a good step for the region, to move forward technology and integrate it with transportation and development in a way that makes it easier for people to move around,” he said. “We’re always looking at opportunities to do that.”

The commission’s unanimous support of BRT makes it easier for the project to secure state and federal funding.

Also added to SPC’s Transportation Improvement Plan was Pittsburgh’s Smart Spines project. The $30 million initiative will improve traffic flow on eight main arteries within the city, including Fifth and Forbes avenues, the BRT corridors. The two projects were considered together in order to maximize funding.

SPC is the throughway for federal, state and local funds. The 2017-20 plan is expected to invest $4.9 billion in regional transportation. But need outstrips available funds. Moving forward, the biggest challenge for the region will be to finish projects, said Doug Smith, SPC’s transportation planning director.

“It’s easier to fund engineering and design work and then all of a sudden you have this big lump of a construction phase that you have to figure out how to fund,” he said.

The entities supporting BRT— the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Port Authority, Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh—are pursuing a federal Capital Investment Grant, with a request of $100 million.