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Starting From Scratch: New BRT Proposal Quells Fears About Service

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Rankin resident Aliya Williams speaks with Port Authority CEO Katherine Kelleman, who thanked Williams for her comment at a public meeting Thursday night about the updated BRT proposal.

After nearly a year of vocal opposition to a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan predicated on deep reductions of service to some Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the Mon Valley, the Port Authority of Allegheny County presented a new plan Thursday night to a packed hall in Rankin.

The “Frequency Preservation Plan” prioritizes service for riders without bus alternatives, while still saving the Port Authority an estimated $7 million per year by decreasing bus-bunching Downtown and in Oakland.

It’s an amazing improvement, said Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“That they thought that folks who currently don’t have access to a lot of service should be the ones that need service improvements the most,” said Wiens. “Rather than those in the Oakland-Downtown corridor who currently have the most options in our entire transit system.”

Wiens credited the shift to the many individuals who, for months, voiced their concerns at Port Authority board meetings, Allegheny County Council meetings, online and in postcards.

The BRT is expected to run between Downtown and Oakland on dedicated lanes. That core line would continue on to Wilkinsburg along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway while another branch would travel to Highland Park, and one through Squirrel Hill and Greenfield.

The plan presented in summer 2017 included a nearly 45 percent service loss for riders on the 61 and 71 buses. The 61 A, B and C and 71 A, C and D lines would have fed into Oakland, but then turned around and headed back out to their routes, forcing people to transfer to the 61D, 71B and P3 buses, designated as BRT lines.

Riders worried about losing their direct ride into Downtown, citing physical and time costs, as well as a possible transfer cost. Many riders in the Mon Valley pay in cash, meaning a transfer could cost an extra $5.50 round-trip.

The new plan reverses the 2017 proposal by making the 61 A, B and C buses, the 71 B and the P3 BRT routes. At a certain point on those routes, riders no longer have any bus alternatives within walking distance to get them where they need to go. Port Authority worked to ensure those riders retained their service, explained senior planning analyst Amy Silbermann.

“We didn’t hear a lot of concerns from riders of say, the 71A or the 71C, because those routes have other routes that take people directly to Downtown and they come seven days a week. There’s lots of other options in these areas,” she said. “So we started from scratch.”

Braddock council president Tina Doose said she was frustrated the change had required so many people to fight so hard.

“I think that there should be a process, that we’re involved on the ground floor,” she said. “And when the problems come up, to make sure that there is an opportunity for us to voice our concerns.”

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman apologized, saying the agency hasn’t been a good neighbor.

“We are acutely aware that we didn’t listen the first time,” she said. “You should never have to beat us up to get a good reaction, I’m sorry that you did. But I’m glad that we were able to learn and come back out. So you’ll see us more. You won’t be sick of me, per se. But you’ll see us more.”

Kelleman started work as the agency’s CEO in January, more than six months after the plan was unveiled. She asked residents to give her time to rebuild their trust in the Port Authority.

“We don’t own this service, we run this. You own this service,” she said to applause. “If it doesn’t meet your needs, we did it wrong.”

The Port Authority will update its BRT plan and resubmit a federal funding application in September. If approved, construction of the BRT would begin in 2019. Nine more meetings on the updated BRT plan are scheduled for April and May.

Earlier on Thursday, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced it, too, would convene BRT meetings: in Downtown, Uptown and Oakland. Those three areas are expected to become Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) zones. The meetings are not yet scheduled.

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the city to apply for PennDOT grant money to pay for the first phase of improvements to streets and traffic signals in Downtown. If the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure received funding, council voted to limit the expenditures to $15 million, with the city’s contribution capped at $4.5 million.