'A Moving Target': Getting To The Heart Of Pittsburgh’s Mon-Oakland Connector Plan

Apr 10, 2020

A new report finds that a planned transit connection between Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood and Oakland neighborhoods would not meet the travel needs of existing residents nor future demand expected from continued redevelopment at the 178-acre Hazelwood Green site. The analysis of the city’s Mon-Oakland Connector project was commissioned by nonprofit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit, or PPT.

“What the report shows is that for every important destination that residents in those communities need to access … public transit vastly outperforms even the best-case scenario for the Mon-Oakland Connector,” said Laura Wiens, director of PPT.

The city’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan includes a proposed “mobility corridor" to run between Hazelwood Green and Hazelwood before traveling through the lower part of Greenfield, along Junction Hollow Trail in Schenley Park, and into Oakland. It prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists, with a parallel trail along which would run microtransit options, including a series of small, electric shuttles; that shuttle system is referred to informally as the Mon-Oakland Connector. City officials have presented the Mon-Oakland Connector as a way to better link residents to Oakland, Pennsylvania’s third biggest job center.

PPT’s study is based on a plan for the Mon-Oakland Connector that’s a few years old, said David Caligiuri. He is the spokesperson for the three foundations that own most of Hazelwood Green: the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and The Heinz Endowments.

“Almono is working, in partnership with [Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure] on more updated technical analysis for what a shuttle between Hazelwood and Oakland would look like,” he wrote in a statement. He added they share PPT’s “commitment to effective mobility and transportation solutions to better connect the Mon Valley to downtown and Oakland.”

Wiens noted the 2018 shuttle plan for which they commissioned the analysis was the last full plan made available to the public. "It's a moving target," she said.

Weighing The Options

The audit completed by Tech4Society evaluated the Mon-Oakland Connector on the metrics of cost, capacity, and travel time, and compared its performance to other options recommended in Hazelwood Green’s Long Range Transportation Plan.

“[The Mon-Oakland Connector] loses out against all the other alternatives,” said Bonnie Fan, a member of Tech4Society and a masters student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. The alternatives “really seem to do a much better job.”

Those alternatives include extending existing bus routes, leveraging existing shuttle systems, and even building an Oakland-Hazelwood-South Side gondola. In Hazelwood Green’s long-range transportation plan, the Mon-Oakland Connector is described as an “interim step” on the way to building a rapid transit link between Hazelwood and Oakland. The plan’s authors recommend support for the connector project, “and / or work[ing] with the Port Authority to provide improved service through Oakland through increased frequency of the 93” or the 75.

PPT and its constituents would prefer the “or” option, to replace the Mon-Oakland Connector with changes in bus service. To better serve Hazelwood they have called for an extension of the 75 bus and to add weekend service on the 93 bus.

The current route of the 75 runs from Oakland to the South Side flats and makes a small loop around East Carson, Sarah and Sidney Streets before returning to Oakland over the Birmingham Bridge. To serve Hazelwood, PPT proposes that at the far end of its South Side run the 75 cross Hot Metal Bridge, loop along Hazelwood and Second Avenues, and then re-cross Hot Metal Bridge to head back down East Carson for the Birmingham Bridge and Oakland.

The 93 bus runs from Hazelwood to Greenfield, Squirrel Hill, Oakland, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, but only on weekdays. Adding service on Saturdays and Sundays would provide another reliable link to grocery stores, health care, and work. Those two changes seem far better than the expense of the connector, especially if it’s an interim solution, said Wiens, citing a $23 million price tag for the shuttle system and millions in expected annual operating costs.

“We know that public money is not infinite,” she said. “Twenty-three million dollars is a tremendous amount of money that needs to be going towards things that help build resilient and healthy communities in Pittsburgh.”

“That’s a complete misrepresentation of what the project is,” said Karina Ricks, who directs the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. The Mon-Oakland Mobility plan focuses on building safe, convenient connections between Oakland and the adjoining neighborhoods; the connector is meant to supplement transit and not supplant it, she said.

In addition, the half-mile trail the city would need to build for the shuttles as they move through Schenley Park only accounts for between $1.3 and $2 million of the project cost, Ricks said. Most of the $23 million appropriated in the capital budget will be used to rebuild and improve the bicycle and pedestrian trail in Junction Hollow after Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority finishes its massive stormwater management project in the area.

Ricks said she understands the deep concern some residents have.

“But I do think there are many voices still that are being left out of this conversation,” she said, noting that vocal opposition means, “there is no space for people to say they would like to try this out.”

When the past won’t stay past

The Mon-Oakland Connector first cropped up in 2015 in a grant application to the state of Pennsylvania. City officials imagined an autonomous shuttle system between the 178-acre Hazelwood Green redevelopment site and Oakland. But the city didn’t first float the project with residents; they learned of the proposal in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

Sonya Tilghman runs the nonprofit Hazelwood Initiative. While the 2015 proposal predated her time with the organization, it has shaped all the conversations about a link to Oakland since, she said.

“It was so poorly unrolled that we have not been able to have a really honest discussion,” she said. “We’re spinning in circles.”

Over the last couple years the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure has changed its plan to respond to concerns, and that’s encouraging, said Andrea Boykowycz, community services director for nonprofit Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, or OPDC. However, the discussion about how to improve connectivity and livability for residents still seems constrained.

“A lot of the questions that the community has been invited to answer as part of the existing planning process have been leading questions,” she said. “The choices that are being presented are not necessarily the choices the communities themselves would come up with as the priorities.”

In addition, the plan doesn’t address who would own and operate the shuttle vehicles. As of now, Port Authority is not an active partner in the effort. Nor, more broadly, does the plan discuss the connector’s impact on the communities through which it would travel: a new transit link will almost certainly translate into pressure on the housing market and an increase in housing costs, said Boykowycz.

“What we’ve been really hoping for is a more holistic approach to thinking about how to improve connection and to strengthen the neighborhoods,” she said. “All of the public agencies and all of the private interests that are involved … are so heavily siloed.”

Ricks agreed that a broader discussion should happen, but that it shouldn’t negate the value of this one piece of a larger solution. She stressed that the city’s investment will pay to rebuild the bicycle and pedestrian trail in Schenley Park; it will add lighting to the trail so users feel safe in the dark; it is expected to establish a protected bike and pedestrian facility along Boundary Street as it moves toward Fifth Avenue. All of that work is expensive, but it’s worth it, said Ricks.

“Augmenting and increasing the capacity of the trail network is a wise investment, even if shuttle services never come to be," she said. "Which is a possible outcome.”

If the trail moves forward but the shuttle doesn’t materialize — this transit connection that has been championed as a lifeline, a way for residents to access all that Oakland has to offer — then Tilghman wonders what will be done to ensure service to Hazelwood is a priority.

“My ideal is that we all think a little bit bigger,” she said.

When asked about Port Authority’s involvement in the Mon-Oakland Connector project, CEO Katharine Kelleman said the agency has not yet had official conversations with the city.

However, she said, “I would not be surprised ... if we were participating in some level of reboot.”

A meeting to update the public on the Mon-Oakland Mobility plan had been scheduled for March, but is now on hold due to the pandemic.