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A New Tool From PPT Aims To Expand Rapid Bus Service

Pittsburghers for Public Transit
“Beyond the East Busway” asks residents to identify their transit needs and suggest possible routes that would improve their lives. The survey will run through September and results will be used to advocate for specific projects.";s:

A new mapping tool from Pittsburghers for Public Transit asks residents in the Monongahela Valley and eastern suburbs to design bus routes that would best serve them. The interactive, online survey, Beyond the East Busway, asks participants where they most need rapid bus service. The survey will be available through September.

Survey participants start by selecting an area of interest: Monroeville and the eastern suburbs, McKeesport and the Mon Valley, or both. Then it asks to which communities within those areas they’d like to travel and which specific destinations -- such as senior housing centers, daycares or medical offices -- could be better served by public transit. The mapping tool, created with CivicMapper and evolveEA, helps identify possible express bus service corridors.

A decade ago, communities east of Pittsburgh saw deep cuts to their bus service. Nearly 13 percent of Allegheny County residents live below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census estimates, and many live in the communities targeted by PPT’s initiative. Express transit corridors could bring down household costs, free up time, and connect people to opportunity. But working people and people with families don’t necessarily have the luxury of going downtown to provide that input to Port Authority, said Laura Wiens, PPT’s executive director.

“We believe that planning should be done … from the ground up,” she said. “There’s an opportunity really to have riders lead the discussion of what transit improvements should be made in our community.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway is one of Port Authority’s highest-performing transit corridors, and the agency, the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, and numerous studies all identify its extension as a top priority. But a 2017 study commissioned by the agency found it could be prohibitively expensive; it pegged the cost north of $500 million. However, that study presumed variations on a particular route, one that roughly parallels an existing rail line, and would have required significant infrastructure improvements, said Wiens.

“It’s not necessary to have that level of infrastructure and therefore that level of cost in order to achieve the benefits that we’re looking for.”

Instead, creating bus-only lanes and adding stop lights that turn green for buses could create the express transit corridors without the sticker shock. In fact, those infrastructure tools are central to the region’s bus rapid transit plan. PPT hopes Beyond the East Busway will identify specific projects that already have resident buy-in, and Wiens said that could make advocating for them a bit easier.

“People don’t like to tend to fight for a carte blanche of service increases,” Wiens said. “Helping give some direction to what funding could be used for, would allow … both politicians and residents to advocate for the funding that’s desperately needed to be able to increase service into those communities.”

That’s especially important because Port Authority cannot currently add new routes under state law. The first consistent transportation funding bill in Pennsylvania history,Act 89, came with constraints, said Adam Brandolph, Port Authority spokesperson.

“We are not permitted to restore routes that were cut,” he said. “We can add extensions to routes but not full-on routes that restore service.”

Act 89 is due to sunset in 2022, and no replacement funding scheme is yet in place. Brandolph said Port Authority would like to see a sustainable revenue source and the ability to add new service.

After the survey closes, evolveEA will produce a report to allow PPT to advocate for a financial assessment and engineering study.

While anyone can take the survey online, PPT will pay eight Community Organizing Fellows to walk people through the exercises one-on-one, to ensure respondents are not determined by ability or computer access.

A $47,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments paid for much of the development of the mapping tool and survey.