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Pittsburgh 'bus rapid transit' route options revealed

| Thursday, March 9, 2017, 1:03 p.m.
Port Authority of Allegheny County
A computer rendering of a bus rapid transit stop in Pittsburgh.
Port Authority of Allegheny County
An illustration of a bus rapid transit station.

Pittsburgh and Port Authority of Allegheny County officials on Thursday revealed route options and cost estimates for a long-discussed "bus rapid transit" system that would link Downtown and Oakland.

BRT, often called "light rail on wheels," uses buses that often operate in a dedicated lane and make fewer stops than regular buses. The intention is to give riders a subway-like connection between Downtown and Oakland — a roughly two-mile stretch the Port Authority's light rail system does not serve.

The plan calls for Pittsburgh's estimated $200 million BRT system to operate with new electric buses on Fifth Avenue or Fifth and Forbes avenues. Under one option, buses would operate on both sides of Fifth in a dedicated lane alongside regular traffic from Liberty Avenue to the Cathedral of Learning. The other option calls for splitting bus traffic to dedicated lanes on Fifth and Forbes.

The dedicated lanes would be converted from the local bus and parking lanes that already are there. Bike lanes also would be added in existing parking lanes, and improved sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting and trees also would be installed and planted, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said.

Officials also are deciding how far the service would extend beyond Oakland and in what capacity. They've narrowed the possible service routes from 42 to four.

Three of the four include a dedicated lane that would reach to Wilkinsburg — with stops in Homewood and East Liberty — while one ends at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

The mainline offers options for two branches: one that extends through Shadyside, East Liberty and Highland Park and the other stretching south through Squirrel Hill and Greenfield. The buses along the "branch" routes would not have their own lanes, but at key intersections the BRT buses would have priority to get through lights before regular traffic, said Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.

Peduto said he prefers the system be installed on Fifth and Forbes and include both branches.

"If we're going to do this, let's do it all," he said. "We've talked about it for over a decade."

Officials plan to make route decisions by mid-April after gathering input from the public, the universities and community groups, Ritchie said.

The project's estimated price tag of $200 million to $240 million would be spent on building transit stations with amenities, buying the buses and installing the infrastructure, officials said.

Officials plan to submit the project for federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts grant program, Ritchie said.

Small Starts falls under the highly competitive federal Capital Investment Grant program. Projects must go through a multi-year, multi-step process to be eligible for funds, said Steven Taubenkibel, an FTA spokesman.

FTA has not yet received an application for the project.

Officials plan to submit the application for federal funding by August, said Peduto.

Other funding sources also are being considered for the BRT project, Ritchie said.

The federal funding would cover half of the cost, with the rest coming from state and local sources, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

"We're optimistic this project is going to score very high on federal transportation guidelines," Fitzgerald said. "We've also been talking to PennDOT and Governor (Tom) Wolf, and they're very supportive at a state level, so we feel pretty good about this."

Officials hope the BRT system helps connect residents of less-developed neighborhoods to jobs in Oakland and downtown and to grocery stores and shopping in the East End, Peduto said.

"It has a lot of benefits beyond getting to Point A and B," Peduto said. "It's actually connecting neighborhoods that have been isolated for about 50 years back to the necessities any person would need."

The system also would benefit college students who don't have cars, Fitzgerald said.

The plan is to start construction within the next 18 months and have the system operational by 2021, Fitzgerald said.

"I want to see it by 2020, but we'll see," he said.

Selling naming rights for the system would bring in additional funding, Fitzgerald said.

Port Authority is under a $2.4 million, two-year design contract with Boston-based CDM Smith Inc. for the project.

Open house public meetings will be held from noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. April 5 at Pitt's Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., said Adam Brandolph, Port Authority spokesman.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669 or tclift@tribweb.com.

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