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How What’s Under The Street May Affect Pittsburgh’s BRT

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Construction of Pittsburgh’s proposed bus rapid transit or BRT system is expected to begin in 2021, a year later than initially planned.

Roughly half of the money for the $225 million project is expected to come from a federal grant program, which means funding and timelines are subject to the vagaries of the federal budget and appropriations processes. Additionally, aging electric, gas, sewer and water lines along the corridor need to be replaced; a later start will likely allow utilities more time to do that work.

Port Authority and city officials are in talks with all parties to ensure the BRT system isn’t plagued with detours and delays just as it’s getting started.

“The [last] thing we want to see is a new roadway with an aging infrastructure underneath it,” said Carl Taylor, director of pipeline replacement with Peoples Natural Gas.

Roughly half of the company’s underground infrastructure along the BRT corridor is more than 40 years old. Similarly, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has century-old pipes below the street and would like to replace them before BRT begins, said Bob Weimar, PWSA’s executive director.

“The goal would be to try and take advantage of the BRT paving to try and reduce our cost of … upgrading the utilities there.”

During earlier iterations of the project timeline, PWSA was told the schedule wouldn’t allow them to replace their mains; the authority’s engineering timeline for such a project was too long. That has since changed, said Weimar, and they should be able to meet a 2021 deadline.

“In the long run, I think it makes a far better project for the city, given that they would like to develop some of these areas,” he said.

BRT is expected to boost economic investment along its route, especially in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, where stakeholders envision significant new development and density.

Some were eager to see a total overhaul of the street, but that’s not likely to happen. However, it’s not clear that the change is a loss for Uptown residents: Derek Dauphin of Pittsburgh City Planning said he’s seeing development proposals for Uptown even without the promise of all new infrastructure and roadways. He noted UPMC is able to build an entirely new hospital complex in the neighborhood.

A Port Authority spokesperson said full-depth reconstruction of the corridors will not happen, but a number of utilities will be replaced, and added, “anything that may take the ‘rapid’ out of ‘bus rapid transit’ would be short-term and temporary, while the benefits of BRT will certainly be long-term.”

Port Authority contracted with AECOM Technical Services, Inc. to design the BRT. At the city’s request, the firm works directly with each of the affected utility companies, the spokesperson said. The city is ultimately responsible for the streets on which BRT will run.

The route for the BRT was selected in 2017 after a series of public meetings. The buses will run on Fifth and Forbes Avenues and connect Downtown, Uptown, and Oakland. The main branch will continue on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, with another branch serving Highland Park and a second traveling through Squirrel Hill and Greenfield.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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