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The Port Authority Can’t Fully Pilot BRT But It Can Try Out Some Of Its Tools

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Bus rapid transit is expected to make Port Authority service faster and more reliable in Pittsburgh. Some of the efficiency will come from dedicated bus lanes, which are similar in concept to the separated busways.

Pittsburgh’s bus rapid transit, or BRT, system aims to make service much faster and save millions of dollars when it becomes operational in 2021. While BRT isn’t expected to begin operating until 2021, it might be possible to test-drive some of its efficiency tools early.

Port Authority officials say many existing service problems result from bus-bunching, where one or more buses wind up right behind one another, creating long wait times and overcrowding. By addressing that issue and improving efficiency, the BRT plan is expected to save $7 million annually.

At a recent community meeting in Rankin, one resident asked if Port Authority would be implementing any of the proposed BRT changes early in order to start saving money before the whole system is built out.

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman said because BRT is an on-street system that will change traffic patterns, there’s no real way to pilot the full system; doing so would be too disruptive.

“But we can add some improvements without waiting for the full project, so we’re definitely looking at that,” she said.

Those possible improvements include signal prioritization or preemption, which helps keep traffic moving by ushering mass transit vehicles through busy intersections or corridors using smart traffic signals. Kelleman said Port Authority is working with both the City of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University to get its buses talking with surrounding infrastructure.

And while the authority has stop spacing guidelines—detailing the ideal distance between stops—they’re not always followed; many routes have stops every block, which also slows buses down. Port Authority planners will be reviewing stop placement, but it’s a difficult conversation to begin, said Kelleman.

“People love their stop at the end of the street, and they own that service,” she said. “So that’s a conversation we’ll come back to.”

The Port Authority will re-submit the region’s BRT funding application to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Starts program this fall. While the project received a favorable rating from its 2017 submission, the federal budget didn’t include money for new projects. Much of the $100 million requested for Pittsburgh’s BRT is allocated for construction, right-of-way acquisition and building bigger stations that can safely accommodate more people.

So while BRT won’t go into effect all at once, it’s possible that some of its buses may run in dedicated lanes before all the stations are built.

Port Authority presented a revised bus rapid transit plan in April following months of sustained opposition to its original proposal from riders and transit advocates. Many worried the system’s time savings were won at the expense of Port Authority’s most transit-dependent riders by dramatically reducing service on the 61 and 71 buses that run to outlying communities such as Homewood, Swissvale, Rankin, Duquesne and McKeesport.

The new plan prioritizes service for riders with the fewest transit options and the frequency of 61 and 71 buses will remain largely unchanged.