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Money spent on busway questioned

| Tuesday, April 2, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Transit officials are hailing the new West Busway as a runaway success, but some critics contend that low ridership and high construction costs make a lousy investment of the $51.6-million-per-mile buses-only roadway.

A year and a half after its opening, Port Authority officials say average weekday ridership on the 14 bus routes that operate along the $258 million busway — which connects the Parkway West in Carnegie with West Carson Street — is at 8,000, nearly 20 percent more than was predicted at this stage.

"We're way ahead of where we thought we would be," said Paul Skoutelas, chief executive of the Port Authority.

But the busway is still far short of the 50,000 daily ridership — or about 25,000 people — it's expected to eventually accommodate, and critics say expectations are easy to surpass if the bar is set low enough. Looming fare hikes and the scheduled closing of the Fort Pitt Tunnel on Saturday have focused attention on the region's transit system and led critics to question the massive investment already made in the busway, the most expensive nationwide.

"If it were really relieving a lot of traffic or they were getting busful after busful of people off the Parkway, it would be worth it. But it's not doing that," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Mt. Lebanon-based think tank. "This is a pretty bad deal for taxpayers."

Highway use continues to grow faster locally than transit ridership, even in areas where pricey transit projects have been built to lighten road congestion, according to data from the Port Authority and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

For example, PennDOT reports a 3 percent decrease in daily traffic since 1995 on the Parkway West near the Fort Pitt Tunnel, where the West Busway was designed to ease traffic flows. But the same figures show a 6 percent rise in traffic on Interstate 376 East, near where the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway has provided an alternate route since the early 1980s.

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Comparing busways (9K)
How much Pittsburgh's three busways compare to some other North American busways.

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A federal study of busways in a handful of American cities shows that Pittsburgh's are the most expensive. And a comparison with the Port Authority's two earlier busway projects shows far fewer people are riding the West Busway so far than rode the East and South busways when those facilities were new.

Port Authority officials predict 15,000 daily ridership on the West Busway by 2010. They estimate it will be at least two decades before the busway is carrying the 50,000 daily ridership it was built to transport, but say that's no cause for alarm.

"The thing you have to remember is that this facility is built to last 40 or 50 years. We're only 18 months into the life of the West Busway," said Bob Grove, a spokesman for the Port Authority. "It's going to carry a very large volume of people for a very long time."

The West Busway is the third built by the Port Authority, and at $258 million, by far the costliest.

The 4.3-mile South Busway, which was the first in the nation when it opened in 1977 at a cost of $27 million, has an average weekday ridership of 13,000. The $113 million, 6.8-mile Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, which opened in 1983, has a daily ridership of about 30,000. The authority expects a 2.3-mile extension of the East Busway due to be completed in November at a cost of $63 million to boost East Busway ridership to more than 50,000 by 2005.

Pittsburgh is widely considered by transit experts to be a leader in the development of busways, along with Ottawa, the Canadian capital. Ottawa's Transitway, which forms the backbone of transit in that city, is the most extensive in North America, with ridership of 200,000 a day. The Transitway, which includes 31 kilometers of exclusive busway and another 30 kilometers of bus lanes along freeways — or about 38 miles total — cost $400 million Canadian to build.

John Bonsall, former general manager of the Ottawa transit system, said the Port Authority faced far greater geographical obstacles than planners in other cities in building its busways.

"The terrain, the topography has been much more difficult, for a start off. So that's meant you spent more money," said Bonsall, president of McCormick Rankin International, an engineering firm that has consulted on busways throughout the United States and Canada.

Construction of the West Busway required the Port Authority to build two tunnels and nearly a dozen bridges. Ottawa, by contrast, is located on much flatter ground.

An analysis of nine busway projects in four U.S. cities published in 2000 by the General Accounting Office found that Pittsburgh's busways cost more to build other busways.

The least expensive — the 8.5-mile South Miami-Dade Busway — cost $7 million per mile, or less than one-seventh the cost of the West Busway. The study also found an average daily ridership of 15,600 on the busways in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Pittsburgh.

Port Authority officials, however, point out that two of the cities studied — Houston and Los Angeles — designed their busways exclusively for buses, but later converted them to high-occupancy vehicle lanes and opened them up to automobile traffic.

"They really are apples and oranges," Skoutelas said. "For true busways, the Port Authority really remains the leader and the pioneer."

Ridership also picked up much faster on Pittsburgh's first two busways than on the West Busway. In its first full year of operation, the South Busway saw average daily ridership of 19,000 — more than twice the ridership the West Busway has reached after 18 months. Ridership on the South Busway has since declined with the improvement of light-rail service from the South Hills. Daily ridership on the East Busway in its first year was more than 20,000.

"The south and east are old, mature, established communities that have been there a long time and don't really have the potential for growth," Skoutelas said. "So the West Busway is for the present, but also for the future."

Transit facilities tend to catch on quickly in populous areas, said Dwight Schock of the Coraopolis-based engineering firm Michael Baker Corp., which worked on all three local busways. But he said the reverse can also be true: Transit can play a role in residential growth.

"Transit also affects where people choose to live," Schock said. "So as people move in to areas that are served by the busway, then you see ridership continue to grow over time."

Critical to the future success of the West Busway, experts say, is the completion of seven park-and-ride lots that will give commuters a free place to park and conveniently board a bus.

The first four already are in operation, but the other three account for 2,300 of the total 2,800 parking spaces. So finishing the last three facilities — in Moon, Robinson and Collier townships — is expected to boost West Busway ridership.

"You don't build a facility for the first day it's open, or the first year," Skoutelas said. "It's just a matter of being realistic about what the possibilities are."

Dorothy Staab of Carnegie had no complaints about the Port Authority's new West Busway as she waited recently for a bus to take her Downtown for a mid-morning shopping trip.

The busway shaves 20 minutes off the inbound trip. And with the early rush hour abated, Staab and the half-dozen other commuters at the busway's Crafton station hardly had to worry about finding an empty seat.

"It's really nice," said Staab, 75, who'd stopped to visit a friend in Crafton before catching a second bus Downtown. "I wish more people would take advantage of it."

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