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What happened to Skybus? The futuristic transit system that Pittsburgh didn't choose

Doug Brendel
Heinz History Center
A Skybus, sometimes called People-Mover, vehicle sits outside the Bombardier Transportation Company in Pittsburgh's South Park. The cars were tested for several years in the late 1960s as part of a proposed transit system throughout Allegheny County.

Lewis Marascalco remembers the buzz he and his fellow engineers felt while they were working on a futuristic transportation system everyone was calling “Skybus.

“I thought it was pretty neat,” Marascalco said. “There was a lot of excitement at the company, at Westinghouse.”

Marascalco was part of the team that was upgrading the equipment and software on three Skybus vehicles Westinghouse Electric had been testing in Pittsburgh’s South Park. He said his job at the time was to make sure the cars could handle hilly terrain and unusual weather conditions.   

Credit HHC Detre L&A / Heinz History Center
Heinz History Center
Crowds at the Allegheny County Fair in South Park line up for a ride on the Skybus. Westinghouse Transportation tested the system year-round, but allowed visitors to take a trip for a dime during the annual event.

“We put in a 10 percent grade section of the track,” Marascalco said, and simulated various weather conditions like heavy rain and snow.

From 1967 to 1971, Westinghousetested their autonomous transit system, Skybus, on a 1.77-mile raised concrete track. The electric-powered rubber-wheeled buses could be operated remotely by engineers at a control station.

“[They used] a very ancient computer. By today’s standards, it would be like an abacus,” Marascalco said. “It controlled the trains, their speed and the stopping and starting and stuff, and it was all done from a central location.”

Skybus was a regional public transit project that, had it been implemented in Allegheny County, would have been one of the first autonomous vehicle systems in the world. It was tested year-round, and during the Allegheny County Fair every summer, visitors could pay a dime to take a whirl on the boxy blue and white tram. Each could fit 60 people, sitting and standing, and unload in 18 seconds. Historians say Walt Disney himself was interested in the technology for one of his parks and visited during testing. 

The system generated a lot of interest, including from the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group Director of Policy Chris Sandvig said PAT crafted a 92-mile rapid transit network plan that involved more than 460 Skybus cars.

Credit Doug Drendel / Heinz History Center
Heinz History Center
An engineer controls the Skybus vehicles remotely with an old computer, telling them when to speed up and slow down around the 1.77 mile long track.

“It went all the way out to Boyce Park, it went to the new airport, it went down to (South Park), there was a subway Downtown, there was Oakland,” Sandvig said. “They were in development and they got pretty far with it.”

At the time, trolleys and buses dominated public transit, but an increasing number of residents were commuting via personal car into the Golden Triangle. Pittsburgh planners were looking for a comprehensive solution to overcrowding the city’s urban centers, and Skybus infrastructure seemed promising. PAT crafted a proposal called the “Early Action Program,” which outlined their plans for the future of the region’s public transit.

In promotional videos, Westinghouse touted Skybus as quiet and energy efficient.

“The cars are light, about one-third the weight and size of a rail car,” the narrator says. “The energy source of the system is three-phase A/C power. One of the lower costs of using A/C is the lower cost of substations.”

Each wheel on the cars were “driving wheels,” meaning they were connected to the motor and powered to propel the vehicle forward. Underneath, a guide wheel in the center locked the cars into place.

“That was the foundation for the whole system,” Marascalco said. “The train is locked onto the center high beam and tested under extreme conditions where it would never be able to break free and go off the track. That center guy is locked in.”

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

But Skybus, which was also called the "People-Mover" and the "Transit-Expressway," never graduated from testing in the Pittsburgh region. Listener Dan Lewis, an electrical engineer from the area, wondered why.

“Why did it never take off? How did we end up with what we have now?” he asked.

Ultimately, the system ran into political hurdles. 

“It was seen as too expensive,” said Heinz History Center curator Emily Ruby. “Instead, the city decided to invest in the transit system that was already in place and expand the bus line, things like that.”

While state and federal funding had sustained some of the research for Skybus, the project’s $228-million cost didn’t appeal to local elected leaders at the time. Even supporters acknowledged they had no estimate for how much would fall to local taxpayers and how much could be derived from other revenue sources.

Then-Mayor Pete Flaherty opposed it and wouldn’t allow stations to be built Downtown.

“Also, there were some instances in the 70s of violence on transit, robbing of the fare box, muggings, things like that,” Sandvig said. “So the lack of an operator or lack of a human being in the vehicle became a concern.”

Sandvig said that same absence of a driver had some leaders worried about unions, while others didn’t think the public would ride an autonomous vehicle. Plus, he said some were skeptical about giving one company such a large and expensive contract.

“Eventually it kind of died under its own weight,” he said.

The East Busway was eventually adopted, along with the extension of the T into the South Hills. Had Skybus been constructed, Sandvig said it would have been a great opportunity for the city.

“Imagine if the first autonomous vehicle in the world was a mass ... public transit vehicle, not something that a Silicon Valley startup came up with,” he said.

The test tracks of Skybus weredisassembled long ago, but one of the original cars sits outside the Bombardier Transportation Company in the South Hills, which bought Westinghouse Transportation. A few years ago, reporter Dave Crawley and the WQED teamchecked in with preservation efforts. There's even a Facebook fan page for people who reminisce about what could have been

The concept of Skybus didn’t die completely, however. There are autonomous systems similar to Skybus in Miami, Morgantown, W.V. and Seattle. Many airports have them, too, including Pittsburgh International.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.