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Feds prompt Pittsburgh Regional Transit to limit BRT project and increase budget

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Regional Transit presented members of the public with updated plans — and an updated price tag — for its Bus Rapid Transit project on Tuesday.

The project, also referred to as BRT, is designed to better connect riders in Downtown, Uptown and Oakland with 24 new stations and exclusive bus lanes.

But the agency has increased its cost estimate for the project by $61 million, to $291 million. According to David Huffaker, PRT's chief development officer, the new cost better accounts for “concerns about potential contingencies that needed to be added, schedule contingencies. And just the overall inflation that has come up since COVID and with the supply chain issues.”

The agency estimates $178.6 million of the project's cost will come from federal grants; $73.6 million from PRT; $30 million from Allegheny County and $8.8 million from the City of Pittsburgh.

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Most of the cost increase will be covered by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. And a consultant required by the FTA suggested a number of project changes after a review.

Plans for stations outside of the project’s core area of Downtown, Uptown and Oakland have been put on hold, while electric buses proposed for the project will now be purchased separately by the agency.

The agency will also hold off on adding dedicated lanes and stations in Squirrel Hill, Greenfield and Highland Park for the foreseeable future. But officials said they intend to add those pieces of the project after the initial rollout.

Once completed, the BRT will use designated bus lanes to provide frequent service between Pittsburgh’s two biggest economic sectors. The project will use routes 61A, B and C, 71B and P3 to run east and west between Downtown and Oakland. According to Amy Silbermann, PRT director of planning and service development, the routes will run at a three- to four-minute frequency during peak periods, and at about an 8-minute frequency otherwise.

Silbermann said the new system will streamline when buses arrive during rush-hour traffic. Currently, buses often bunch up next to each other during rush hour. Some riders report a full bus being followed closely by an empty one.

“One of the reasons for the bunching and the reliability issues in this corridor is actually overservice,” Silbermann said Tuesday.

The project will also include new sidewalks in uptown, and protected bicycle lanes throughout the corridor.

The construction of the BRT will now be done in two phases — a move Huffaker said was spurred by another suggestion from the FTA consultant. Construction of a loop Downtown will come first, followed by construction in Uptown and Oakland.

Huffaker said that a construction contract for the Downtown phase of the BRT could be awarded within the next month. “Things are about to get very real with the project,” he said Tuesday.

Construction is estimated to begin for the Downtown phase next spring.

Bu Huffaker said construction in Uptown and Oakland won’t begin until 2024, which means service throughout the entire core area of the project might not start until 2026. He said the agency would launch service in the Downtown loop before expanding to Uptown and Oakland.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.