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Mon/Fayette proponent pitches expressway alternative

| Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 10:27 a.m.
Motorists start their journey south on the Mon-Fayette Expressway at Jefferson Hills.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Motorists start their journey south on the Mon-Fayette Expressway at Jefferson Hills.

A leading advocate for the Mon/Fayette Expressway has proposed an expanded Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway as an alternative to the Duquesne-to-Pittsburgh fork in what had been a two-pronged plan.

“We are proposing the concept of extending the busway east (from Swissvale) to the proposed alignment for the expressway project in East Pittsburgh,” Mon Valley Progress Council executive director Joe Kirk said. “(We are) exploring the concept of a high-occupancy-vehicle use for that extension.”

Kirk said that puts the focus on areas where there is support for bringing the expressway, also known as Turnpike 43, north from Jefferson Hills to Interstate 376 in Monroeville and Wilkins Township. He said that would cut the $4 billion price tag in half.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who opposes the expressway, said Kirk is conceding that the whole project is dead.

“Communities like mine can plan now and we can also do a post-mortem analysis of the tens of millions of dollars that were squandered on this ridiculous idea,” Fetterman said. “I would like to commend my former adversary for coming around and acknowledging the foolishness of his position.”

Kirk said he still advocates a 13-mile highway from Jefferson Hills to I-376, to “provide improved access to industrial brownfield sites (and) for major local Mon Valley employers,” such as Kennywood Park.

“Kennywood continues to support the completion of the Mon/ Fayette Expressway project,” park spokesman Jeff Filicko said, “because of its potential economic development impact for the Mon Valley and as an added convenience for our guests getting to and from the park.”

Other advocates said they are surprised by Kirk's ideas and still are studying them.

“I don't feel like I know enough about it to comment one way or the other,” Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce president Frank Horrigan said.

Kirk said he would revisit the idea of public-private partnerships to build the expressway.

“The Turnpike Commission started a process but did not fully implement that process,” Kirk said. “It is certainly worth revisiting. It may prove not to be financially feasible (but) financial markets are certainly in better shape.”

Kirk proposes that cars with more than two occupants could use the East Busway as they use HOV lanes on Interstate 279 from the North Hills into Pittsburgh.

Kirk said a toll could be charged for East Busway HOV use, something not done in the North Hills.

Kirk concedes design and regulatory issues exist, a point raised by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's spokeswoman Amie Downs.

“(Fitzgerald ) believes there are a number of hurdles,” she said, referring other queries to Port Authority.

“Safety, particularly with regards to pedestrian use around stations, would be a potential issue, as well as possible impact on performance of busway routes,” Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said.

“A change in busway usage would need to be approved by the Federal Transit Administration,” she said.

Pharo said her agency has no plans to extend the busway, but it is “open to considering proposals or ideas that could help improve transportation in the region.”

Kirk's suggestions would involve PennDOT, but District 11 spokesman Steve Cowan declined to comment.

Fetterman endorsed a “bus rapid transit” concept pioneered 39 years ago in Curitiba, Brazil. It uses dedicated right-of-ways and other concepts normally associated with trains. The Metropolitan Planning Council said it serves 1.3 million passengers every day, including 70 percent of city commuters in Curitiba.

It is a model for other bus rapid transit plans such as one in Cleveland, which Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Peduto toured last month.

“It is refreshing to have leadership that is considering progressive and cost-effective plans,” Fetterman said. “These are the kinds of options we should be taking a look at.”

Port Authority is studying a bus rapid transit link between downtown Pittsburgh, Oakland and possibly other points to the east.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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