A Shuttle System Through Schenley Park Is Going Nowhere With Some Residents

Apr 23, 2019

A proposal to create a self-driving shuttle system between Oakland and Hazelwood continues to draw opposition from residents and activists. 

A small group that gathered outside the City-County Building Monday afternoon linked the project to issues of equity, gentrification, and displacement across the city.

The Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan imagines using city dollars to build infrastructure to carry self-driving micro-shuttles from Oakland through Schenley Park and Four Mile Run — the lower part of Greenfield — before moving on to the 178-acre Hazelwood Green development and Hazelwood. When the proposal surfaced in 2017, city officials said residents in the Run and Hazelwood need better connections to Oakland.

But there’s a galling disconnect between problem and solution, said Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She said Hazelwood's most pressing need was weekend bus service, which the community now lacks.

“If this were truly a project for improving public transportation … [the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure] would be partnering with Port Authority or providing funds to Port Authority to make the transit improvements that residents have actually been calling for.”

Pittsburgh’s 2019 capital budget allocated $1.3 million to the Mon-Oakland project, and projected a total commitment of $23 million by 2024. A Port Authority spokesperson characterized the Mon-Oakland Connector as a city project the agency continuies to monitor.

But on Monday, a number of speakers said the project raised the question of who the plan serves: residents or institutions, communities or developers.

“I think we should invest in existing residents’ quality of life and access to feasible transit options,” said Teireik Williams, president of the South Oakland Neighborhood Group. He urged officials to back "agendas that are committed to preserving affordability and preserving long-term residents.”

Randall Taylor, a member of the Penn Plaza Support and Action Coalition and a former school board member, said the planning process lacked resident input. He likened the possible consequences of the plan to the gentrification of East Liberty and the loss of Penn Plaza, an apartment complex that housed lower-income residents.

If such trends continued, he warned, “You’re going to walk through this city and every single part of this city is going to look the same.”

Director of Department of Mobility and Infrastructure Karina Ricks was not immediately available for comment.

At previous meetings, she stressed that the plan is not what it was in 2015. At that time, officials had sought a state grant for a shuttle system to run from Oakland to what was then called the Almono site without seeking neighborhood input.

And Ricks says the transit link will piggyback off Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s $40 million stormwater infrastructure project meant to finally address flooding in Four Mile Run.

“It’s really important that this project be subordinate to the stormwater issues," she said in January.

But Ziggy Edwards, who lives in the Run, worries the transit project will hamper the stormwater work.

“We don’t need to spend tens of millions of our tax dollars on a shuttle roadway that may hinder flood relief," she said Monday.

She also said that the decision-making process is scarcely more open now than it was in 2015.

“They’ve had to have some public meetings,” she said. But “they seem very determined to do what they originally wanted and not seriously consider any other alternative.”

The city has selected Michael Baker International to design the Mon-Oakland Connector, Ricks confirmed in January. The firm is also serving as the third-party reviewer on PWSA’s stormwater project, conducting an analysis to ensure PWSA’s design uses ratepayer dollars to do the most good, said PWSA spokesperson Will Pickering.

“We are fully committed to a public process," Pickering said.

PWSA expects to hold a meeting after mid-May, when Michael Baker concludes its analysis.