City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials convened a joint meeting Thursday night to discuss two major projects planned for Schenley Park: stormwater infrastructure and a new transportation route. Both have generated significant aggravation.
Flooding and sewage backups have plagued residents in the lower part of Greenfield, commonly called The Run, for years. The Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement Project should stop that by capturing rain and runoff before it ever gets to a point of overwhelming the combined sewer system, said Alex Sciulli, PWSA’s chief of program management.
“This project will provide a level of protection that you don’t have now,” he said. “We’re hoping to make a significant impact on what you see right now.”
While work is still a year away, Sciulli said the authority has identified two possible projects to provide relief in the interim. PWSA expects to build two retention swales — “Basically a ditch” — one on Overlook Drive and the other on Bridle Trail.
Residents who crowded into Local 95 of the International Union of Operating Engineers on Saline Street welcomed a spring 2020 construction start for the stormwater project, but expressed that it should have happened sooner. Conversely, the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project produced a lot of anger.
The Mon-Oakland plan would create a corridor between Oakland, Greenfield and Hazelwood. Next to the existing bike and pedestrian Junction Hollow Trail, the project would add a new, paved trail for things such as electric assist bikes, scooters, or other forms of micro-transit. It would be closed to private vehicles and full-size buses, but the city otherwise doesn’t want to preclude any options, said Karina Ricks, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.
“What this project is about is providing a corridor that can accommodate additional mobility in this area,” she said.
Many residents sported buttons that read, “Not Sold On AV,” a reference to the proposal to establish a system of self-driving shuttles along the corridor. The Mon-Oakland plan has been presented in various iterations since 2017, but that particular proposal continues to rankle. The idea has its roots in a 2015 plan created by the Urban Redevelopment Authority without community input, but was revised and revived in 2018. Many residents at Thursday’s meeting wanted to know who would own the shuttles and who would operate them.
“That’s not necessarily what we’re talking about,” said Ricks. “If that never comes to pass, we are still pursuing the creation of the mobility path.”
But residents continued to raise concerns about the implications for safety and access created by any shuttle moving through the corridor and through the park.
Hazelwood resident Chie Togami said she’d love to be able to get to Pitt faster, where she’s pursuing her Ph.D.
“But these are luxury transportation options. Pods, electric scooters, who can afford that, you know? It’s out of reach financially for many people,” she said. “And what about people who are not able-bodied? Able-bodiedness is a temporary condition and bus drivers do incredible things to help accommodate people.”
Others questioned whether the mobility project was necessary at all. Squirrel Hill resident Chris Zurawsky said the corridor is really only being built to serve UPMC and the universities who want to ferry employees to Hazelwood Green.
“And I resent that my public officials, my local government, is providing cover for these entities that are going to benefit from this shuttle bus and from the road through my public park.”
Ricks said there’s no question that the project has an economic development aspect: the city wants to see infill development in Hazelwood and to see Hazelwood Green develop in a sustainable way.
If the idea is to dissuade people from driving to Hazelwood Green, a mobility corridor populated by electric-assist vehicles and micro-shuttles isn’t the solution, said Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.
“Passenger capacity of these vehicles is so low that it doesn’t begin to touch the need they’re claiming will exist over there.”
If DOMI is trying to solve mobility problems for residents in Hazelwood and the Run, Wiens wondered why the department isn’t addressing already articulated requests: weekend service on the 93, sidewalks, streetlights, and bus shelters.
Councilor Corey O’Connor, who represents Greenfield and Hazelwood, said he understands his constituents’ frustration with the mobility project.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “These are the questions they’ve had for the last three-plus years.”
PWSA will hold another public meeting before it bids out the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement Project for construction, at a cost of $8 to $16 million. Final design for the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project is expected to conclude in 2020 or 2021. The next meeting will be held in September.
The Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement Project
The Four Mile Run project will collect stormwater from part of Schenley Park and the neighborhoods of Oakland, Greenfield, Squirrel Hill and Hazelwood and channel it to the Monongahela River.
For years, that water has created chronic flooding and sewage overflows. Like a lot of older cities, Pittsburgh has a combined sewer system: instead of separate lines for stormwater and sewage, the infrastructure purposefully directed stormwater into the sanitary sewer system to dilute it before dumping into the rivers. In modern times, this clever fix is a distinct no-no, but has taken a long time to address. This project aims to prevent stormwater from ever reaching the sewage system, thereby decreasing sewage overflows and flooding.
Panther Hollow Lake will be used to capture and hold stormwater before sending it through an open channel along Junction Hollow and on to the river. PWSA may also build wetlands or other stormwater features to further the work.
The Four Mile Run project was described as the core of a long-term $40 million initiative to divert stormwater from a much larger area and convey it through Four Mile Run.
The Mon-Oakland Mobility Project
Though the idea of a connection from Oakland to Hazelwood has kicked around for a while, it gained new urgency thanks to PWSA’s work. Since the authority would already be digging up part of the park, the city decided to piggyback on the project to save money and limit disruptions.
The corridor is conceived as an artery for pedestrians and cyclists along the existing Junction Hollow Trail, and for faster modes of transit on a new, paved trail. Speeds for options such as electric-assist bicycles, electric scooters and micro-shuttles would be capped at 20 miles per hour, according to DOMI officials.
As Pittsburgh grows and develops, the hope is that establishing alternative means of transportation will slowly wean the city off of dependence on single-occupancy vehicles. The Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan aims to create better connections to Schenley Park for neighborhoods that are near but not directly adjacent.
In its current state, the Mon-Oakland project has two phases: one from Oakland through Junction Hollow and the Run, and a second that would run along Sylvan Street throughout Hazelwood.
To ensure that the main focus of the city and PWSA remained on stormwater management, not much has happened with the mobility project for some time. DOMI is again picking up design, and will have more information to present to residents in September. The project's price tag is expected to range between $14 and $17 million.
Pittsburgh’s Knight Foundation Grant
As conversations about the Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan advance, Pittsburgh will begin a series of discussions about autonomous vehicles. A $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation will be used over three years to demystify autonomous vehicles for the public, according to administration officials. The Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan is expected to be a part of those conversations.