The making of Pittsburgh's East Busway
Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the U.S. to experiment with the concept of a dedicated bus rapid transit system. Today, Pittsburgh’s three busways cover nearly 20 miles and help remove thousands of cars from the city’s congested highways.
Good Question! listener Jay Walker recently started taking the East Busway from near his home in Shadyside to his friend’s house in Edgewood. The closest stop there is Hamnett Station, near Edgewood’s border with Wilkinsburg.
“And ever since I started going there, it’s been very difficult to get on the bus, get off the bus quickly and just go to his neighborhood,” Walker said. “Why is it so difficult to get to Edgewood from the Hamnett Busway Station?”
Easing traffic congestion using an existing right-of-way
The answer to Walker’s questions is woven into the history of the busway. Its story begins in the 1950s with the creation of the Port Authority of Allegheny County. One of the agency’s first tasks was to formulate a set of goals they called the “Early Action Program.” The initiative included a strategy to replace old streetcars, fix roads in poor condition and implement an autonomous Skybus system. As streetcars were phased out and replaced by buses, PAT assistant manager Chuck Rompala said the authority identified that traffic would likely worsen.
“There we still a concern about the bus traffic in the area that was replacing streetcars and how we more efficiently, more rapidly move that on fixed guideways or private rights of way,” Rompala said.
Busways — highways used exclusively by area transit systems — became the buzzword. Over the next few years, PAT determined the first busway would serve the city’s southern neighborhoods, connecting the South Side to Overbook. The 3.7-mile road opened in 1977 and diverted buses from Route 51 and the Liberty Tunnels. PAT program manager Chris Walker said with the success of the South Busway still fresh, the agency turned to designing the East Busway.
“When the busway was in the early planning phases, one of the main drivers was congestion on the Parkway East,” Walker said. “One of the corridors that was identified as being potentially advantageous for a transit corridor was along the railroad between Downtown and Swissvale.”
Through negotiations, PAT agreed to rebuild 5 miles of railroad tracks, converting two into a concrete road. This road would become the East Busway route. Workers elevated the busway, so if the nearby train derailed, the road would be protected.
Typically stations along the busway were based on neighborhood density and ridership. Stops included the historic Penn Station downtown, Herron Avenue in Polish Hill, Negley Avenue in Shadyside, East Liberty, Homewood and Wilkinsburg.
The East Busway officially opened in March of 1983 and like its southern counterpart, was an immediate success. PAT program manager of service planning Fred Mergner said the 6.8-mile roadway cut commute times by more than half for many riders.
“In rush hour, when it formerly took 35-45 minutes to get to East Liberty on a bus, now you could get there in 10 minutes,” Mergner said. “It used to take almost an hour to get to Wilkinsburg and now you could get there in 15 minutes.”
Controversy over extending the Busway
Riding the busway’s popularity, PAT again proposed extending the route through Wilkinsburg, Edgewood and Rankin to Swissvale using the now-Norfolk Southern-owned right-of-way. But former Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette transportation writer Joe Grata said some of the eastern boroughs’ leadership was hesitant to get on board.
“Were these communities welcoming? Not always. Not everybody,” Grata said.
Some boroughs were concerned about bus noise, air quality, and car and pedestrian traffic around stations. But the main concern, according to Edgewood Borough Council President Patricia Schaefer, was what the boroughs felt was a lack of investment in the region.
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“It would be an incredible benefit to have light rail for efficiency, for the environment, for drawing people and businesses,” said Schaefer.
Despite the opposition, the boroughs and PAT eventually came to an agreement in 2002. Schaefer said Edgewood borough and PAT signed a cooperation contract about the extension. It does not include light rail, but states: “...Edgewood is, and remains, in favor of a future conversion of the East Busway and East Busway Extension to a light rail transit system.” This, to Schaefer, means that the conversation about light rail is not over.
“We’re still here and we’re still fighting to improve the eastern corridor with our sister communities,” Schaefer said. “That vision hasn’t gone away.”
Instead, PAT agreed to do landscaping around the Busway, look into more fuel-efficient vehicles and restore the historic Edgewood Train Station. Renovations of the 1,500-foot station were completed in 2008.
Hamnett Station, the stop closest to Edgewood, does not have inbound and outbound access, as listener Jay Walker observed. Instead, riders on the outbound side must cross the busway.
“Hamnet actually turned out to be a better location,” PAT program manager Mergner said, because of space constraints.
The East Busway is used by thousands of commuters every day, said Mergner because its main routes are fed from local routes.
“Its footprint is the narrow tree trunk of the busway, but then they fan out all the way from the Allegheny River to the Monongahela River,” he said. “Communities in the suburbs benefit from the busway.”
The East Busway could be extended again, if area officials decide to link it to the eventual Mon-Fayette Expressway expansion. The proposal is part of Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission’s “Mapping the Future: The Southwestern PA Plan.”