Millions set aside for an infrastructure project in Pittsburgh’s 2021 capital budget will instead be used to fund housing, small businesses and street improvements.
Councilor Corey O’Connor proposed the amendment in a hearing on Monday. He said the money allocated for the Mon-Oakland Connector this year can instead help address economic fallout from the pandemic.
“How many people once we get out of this are going to be in trouble of not paying their mortgage?” he said. “Not being able to pay their rent? Not being able to keep their small business open … and employ people in Pittsburgh?”
About half of the $4.1 million will be moved into the city’s Housing Opportunity Fund, $672,000 will be used to support small businesses, and the rest will fund pedestrian improvements in Hazelwood.
It’s one of three neighborhoods that would be linked together by the Mon-Oakland Connector or MOC. Still in the design phase, the MOC would build a new “mobility trail” to run from Oakland through Schenley Park and into the lower part of Greenfield — called Four Mile Run or just the Run — before traveling into Hazelwood and on to the 178-acre Hazelwood Green development.
When the idea first surfaced in 2015, the aim was to create an autonomous shuttle system to run between Oakland and Hazelwood Green, then called Almono. Residents first learned of the plan from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story that reported city officials had already applied for grant funding; public trust has been in short supply ever since.
The project was revived in 2017 when a large, stormwater management project to prevent flooding in the Run was put on the books. At the time Karina Ricks, who directs the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, told rooms of skeptical people that the city could piggyback off that work and build new ways of connecting people to the neighborhoods around them.
In the years since, the Mon-Oakland Connector has come into sharper relief. Running parallel to an existing bike and pedestrian trail, the city would build a wide new road for e-bikes, scooters and other small, personal modes of transit. Ricks said they are planning for a city that will hopefully continue to grow, one in which more people will choose to travel by bike and emerging micromobility options.
“When you’re investing in infrastructure you have to take the long view,” she said.
While the new roadway would also accommodate small, electric shuttles, Ricks said the shuttle “has been a distraction … we’re talking about something that may make an appearance four times an hour.”
Despite changes to the plan, and new attempts at community engagement, the project (and its shuttles) remain hotly contested.
Residents continue to tell city officials the MOC doesn’t meet their needs. They’ve asked the city instead to help expand mass transit along existing routes and build new sidewalks.
Laura Wiens leads the advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit. Last year, the group commissioned an analysis of the proposed system that concluded the MOC wouldn’t improve connectivity for residents.
“When we have … a limited budget of public money, we have to decide how do we prioritize it and how does it serve the greatest number of people,” she said.
Opposition to the MOC has been met with anti-progress accusations, but O’Connor said there’s been a critical lack of transparency.
“The money that was put towards this project a few years ago never had line items as to where it was going,” he said.
The sense that the MOC will continue to move forward no matter what people say continues to frustrate Run resident Ziggy Edwards. In a budget hearing on Monday she called the MOC “a vanity project,” and a “zombie that shambles along fueled by wealthy private interests.”
The foundations that own Hazelwood Green — Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and The Heinz Endowments — will operate the shuttle system.
A spokesperson for the foundations, David Caliguiri, said the foundation partners support O’Connor’s desire to fund housing, support small businesses and invest in Hazelwood’s infrastructure.
“We also believe the Mon-Oakland Connector remains a critical economic development effort for the City of Pittsburgh and the entire region,” he said, and added that they remain committed to funding “this and other critical infrastructure projects.”
O’Connor’s amendment passed unopposed by the rest of council. The full budget will go to a vote this month.