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Public favors longest, costliest Pittsburgh bus rapid transit route

| Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 12:18 p.m.
Port Authority of Allegheny County
A computer rendering of a bus rapid transit stop in Pittsburgh.
Theresa Clift | Tribune-Review
A public meeting was held Wednesday at Pitt's Alumni Hall in Oakland about Port Authority of Allegheny County's proposed bus rapid transit system linking Oakland and Downtown.

A proposed bus rapid transit route that would connect Downtown with East Liberty, Homewood and Wilkinsburg emerged during a public meeting Wednesday as a favorite over routes that would extend only to Oakland.

That option, which is also favored by Mayor Bill Peduto, is the costliest of the four route options on the table, at roughly $240 million.

The idea is to connect the region's two largest job centers ­— Pittsburgh's Downtown and Oakland — with a new mass transit system, since the two are not connected by the Port Authority's light rail system.

Bus rapid transit, coined "light rail on wheels," uses buses that often operate in a dedicated lane and make fewer stops than regular buses for an experience that's more akin to a train.

All route options include a dedicated bus rapid transit lane for electric buses from Liberty Avenue in Downtown to the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

Three of the four route options extend those dedicated lanes from Oakland to Wilkinsburg, with stops in Homewood and East Liberty.

The favored proposal also includes two branches, which would not have their own lanes, but would allow BRT buses to get through lights before regular traffic. One branch would extend through Shadyside, East Liberty and Highland Park. The other would go through Squirrel Hill and Greenfield.

At a public meeting held Wednesday by county and city officials, Betsy Cwenar said she suspects the system won't attract significant ridership unless it extends east beyond Oakland, as it does in the preferred route option.

"A lot of the traffic on Fifth Avenue aren't people just going from Downtown to Oakland, but beyond Oakland," said Cwenar, of Point Breeze.

Marcia Bandes said the new system would help her get from her Squirrel Hill home to Oakland and Downtown faster than regular buses, but she is skeptical about whether it is the best use of funds.

"They cut so many bus routes years ago, that served the suburbs. Maybe they should be trying to add some of those back instead of spending millions on this," Bandes said. "I don't mind spending an extra 10 minutes on the bus."

The BRT system would also mean that several existing bus routes would no longer travel between Downtown and Oakland, requiring between 3,100 and 6,700 East End riders who do not have to transfer today to transfer buses to get Downtown — a concern raised by the organization Pittsburghers for Public Transit in a news release Wednesday.

Officials are also seeking public input on the alignment of the system.

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 route options range from $200 million to $240 million, which would be spent mostly on building transit stations, buying electric buses and installing infrastructure, officials have said.

Officials plan to make decisions about routes and lane alignment options by the end of the month, and submit the project funding proposal by August, Peduto has said.

The project will be a candidate for federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts grant program, among other funding options, Port Authority Spokesman Jim Ritchie has said.

Small Starts falls under the highly competitive federal Capital Investment Grant program, Steven Taubenkibel, an FTA spokesman, has told the Trib. After projects are submitted for consideration, they must go through a multi-year, multi-step process to be eligible.

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

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

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

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

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