Port Authority antes up $2M for Bus Rapid Transit line, seeks more

| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 11:17 a.m.

Port Authority of Allegheny County voted on Tuesday to allocate money to design a $200 million express bus service project between Oakland and Downtown, moving the agency's largest project since the North Shore Connector closer to reality.

The transit agency shifted $1.56 million of its 2014-15 capital budget from a bridge project to help pay for engineering design and an environmental impact study — required precursors to applying for federal funding in 2016 for a Bus Rapid Transit line.

The money will go with $440,000 Port Authority allocated and $1 million from the county. Port Authority officials plan to ask the county for $1 million, likely from drink tax revenue, to pay the $4 million initial bill.

“The engineering design would cover about 30 percent of how this would lay out,” Port Authority Chairman Robert Hurley said.

The rest of the design would be completed when federal funding is approved, he said.

The reallocation took money from painting and repairs for the North Braddock Avenue Bridge. Hurley said that project still would move forward.

“The county will fund this (second $1 million request) as part of a local match, the same as it did on the North Shore Connector,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who plans to budget the money next year.

“This is a priority for the business community in Oakland and Downtown. Oakland and Downtown are literally bursting at the seams. We've got to figure out a way to get people in and out using transit,” he said.

Fitzgerald contends a BRT line, which would cost about $200 million, could spark development.

Susan Manko, spokeswoman for UPMC, which employs more than 10,000 people in Oakland, said the hospital system supports BRT and donated a parcel of land near UPMC Presbyterian hospital along Fifth Avenue for a BRT station.

“Absolutely, we support it. It would ease transportation for people,” Manko said.

The North Shore Connector, opened in 2012, cost $517 million.

Officials estimate extending the T to Oakland would cost $1 billion. Fitzgerald contends BRT is a more economical option.

Government watchdogs say Port Authority needs to provide more information before spending gobs of public money.

“We already have a bus-dedicated lane. How much time will this save? It comes down to the engineering study,” said Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst for the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “They're trying to make it more attractive, like light-rail. But it's not light-rail. Government leaders are really interested in it. Where's all the money going to come from?”

County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said she opposed the county allocating $1 million the first time for a study.

“We just need more information. Last time, there was no presentation to council,” Heidelbaugh said. “If BRT increases ridership for those that desperately need it, I'd be in favor of it. To the extent this is a capital project without an increase in ridership, then no.”

Port Authority released details during the past year. Potential routes to Oakland have been narrowed to Forbes and Fifth avenues, officials said. With a BRT line, Port Authority officials said buses would travel five minutes apart, allowing for quicker trips. Trips to Morewood Avenue, for example, would take 14:07 from Downtown, compared with 23:10.

Stops would resemble light-rail stations, and buses would look like trains.

Andy Hardie, owner of Dave & Andy's Homemade Ice Cream in Oakland, said reconfiguring traffic could pose problems.

“I'm always a little skeptical about these things. If you go up on Fifth at rush hour, it's already next to impossible to get on the parkway. And if they take out another lane for buses, traffic would be ridiculous,” said Hardie, 55, of Fox Chapel. “I agree there needs to be better mass transit, but what it is, I don't know.”

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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