A Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT system has been in the works in one form or another for more than a decade in Pittsburgh. It has been hailed as a way to make public transportation more efficient and more appealing, as well as a means to support economic growth in the region.
In September, those plans took a significant step forward: the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority applied for $100 million in funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts grant program; it’s about half of the project’s estimated cost.
BRT vehicles would run on dedicated lanes between Downtown and Oakland before splitting into branches: one would run along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to Wilkinsburg, another through Highland Park and the third through Squirrel Hill.
The goal of BRT is simple: Move riders faster. The Port Authority of Allegheny County, after all, operates more than 700 buses and travels thousands upon thousands of miles each year. But bus service can be slow and congested. BRT will help address those problems, said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
“You’re going to be able to get to work more quickly, we’re not going to bus bunch,” he said, referring to when a string of buses that are supposed to be running evenly spaced, but end up running roughly at the same time along a route. “The opportunity with a brand new system, a BRT, that’s state of the art and is moving transit in the next direction is a way to connect this region and make this region grow sustainably.”
While BRT will improve speed on some routes, the federal grant application outlined deep service cuts for a few specific routes. Riders on the 61 A, B and C routes would see an average of 43 percent less service. The 71 A, C and D would be cut by an average of 40 percent. The cuts would hit Rankin, Swissvale, Braddock, Duquesne and McKeesport, among others.
While the cuts were discussed in a series of public meetings held last year—after the grant application was submitted—the issue remains contentious. Many of the communities that could be affected by the proposed service reductions are majority African American communities and low-income communities who are more dependent on transit.
During those meetings last fall, officials said BRT would attract more people to public transit, which would mean greater revenue and better service for all. That assumption was not factored into the grant application. Instead, the memo assumes a 7 percent growth in ridership, due solely to transfers onto BRT from the 61 and 71 buses. Similarly, a projected 3 percent increase in revenue stems from those same people paying the cost of a transfer. The Port Authority has said repeatedly they are considering a free transfer to BRT routes.
Speaking at a recent Allegheny County Council meeting, Rankin resident Pearl Hughey said the plan disenfranchises people.
“I just want to know: Are you comfortable with a proposal that further marginalizes and financially burdens those that are still trying to find their way out of the steel collapse? A proposal that is indifferent, biased, and gives the appearance of being a little slanted?”
Kate Coluccio is director of the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale. She told County Council she’d collected more than a hundred opinion cards from patrons on how service cuts could affect them.
“The BRT may improve bus service to a small slice of Allegheny County users,” she said. “But if this improved service is necessary, then I urge you to find a way to implement the BRT in a way that it does not cut bus service to people who most need it.”
Fitzgerald said there may be fewer buses, but they’ll be better matched to when people need them; by making Port Authority more efficient, the agency can serve more people.
“We’re making sure — meeting with the community groups — that service will not only be maintained, but actually be enhanced,” he said. “So that people can get from these Mon Valley communities to Oakland, downtown, where the jobs are, where the opportunities are, in a better way than they have in the past.”
He added that some of the numbers proposed in the Small Starts grant application have since been changed.
However, it is not clear how the Port Authority may fill the needs of communities slated to lose nearly half their bus service. While the federal grant application says a detailed plan is being developed, it has not yet been shared with the affected communities.
Some concerned about BRT’s effects on the Mon Valley and other communities have said they think the project violates the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination by federally funded government agencies. Before a public transit agency makes any major service change, it has to conduct a Title VI assessment. A Port Authority spokesperson wrote in an email that because no service changes have yet been decided on, Port Authority has not made that evaluation. However, an Environmental Justice assessment is currently being conducted. The analysis considers health, social and economic impacts.
Laura Wiens is director of the nonprofit Pittsburghers for Public Transit, or PPT. She told a recent meeting of the URA board that she was troubled by how the service cuts came to be included in the proposal in the first place.
“I think...the process is a real problem,” she said. “We [PPT staff and members] have been at the Port Authority, we have been at County Council, and these folks should not have to fight after decisions are made just to mitigate the harm that you’re proposing to inflict on them.”
Speaking after the meeting, Chairman Kevin Acklin said he was surprised to hear about the proposed reduction in service.
“Today was the first time that I’ve been presented with that information that these cuts are going to happen, that the perception is that people are going to have a more difficult time getting to downtown and a more expensive route,” he said. “I’ll make sure on behalf of the URA that those are issues that are addressed as part of our application.”
The Port Authority’s new CEO, Katharine Kelleman, joined the agency in January. She said they are reviewing the proposal.
“We run the service, we don’t own it. The communities do,” she said. “And so if we’ve got a project that we felt was very good but our communities are asking us to reevaluate...this is the perfect time to do it.”
Kelleman said Port Authority is working with its consultants to ensure that changes can be made to its Small Starts grant application. The Federal Transit Administration recently issued its evaluation of the region’s BRT proposal, rating it medium-high, said Kelleman. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget does not include any funding for new projects.
The Port Authority expects to hold a new round of BRT meetings soon. Those are still being scheduled.