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Traffic studies contrast in views

| Monday, May 14, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Two conflicting studies on Allegheny County's transportation network are fueling debate about transit priorities, the extent of traffic congestion in the region and possible remedies.

The Texas Transportation Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates expansion of mass public transit, gave the county high marks last week when it reported that local commuters experience less congestion during rush hour than motorists in 64 other U.S. regions.

The Construction Legislative Council, a Pittsburgh group, released a study the same day that said four corridors - the Parkway East, Parkway West, Route 28 and Route 51 - harbor significant traffic congestion. The coalition presented its findings Tuesday night to Allegheny County Council.

Experts say the two studies show just how divided planners are on the condition of the region's transit infrastructure and where money should be spent.

'Traditionally there have been two camps: the transit and tree-huggers, and the highway people,' said Jon Smith, long-range planning director for the Allegheny County Transit Council. 'If we don't come together, why, we'll stay pretty much as we are, a stagnant region.'

The federal government plans to reduce transportation funding to the states from a maximum of 80 percent of funds requested to 50 percent, Smith said.

'We better really be careful about the projects we submit, be it transit or highway,' or else no money will end up in southwestern Pennsylvania, Smith said.

George White, a retired professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, called the battle between the transit and highway factions a game.

'This conflict has been going on for years,' White said. 'By and large the highway lobby is politically rock solid. They have a lot of money and they have a lot of clients. So the attempt has been to raid the general transportation funding and convert it to transit, but it has not been successful.'

White said the federal government received $12 billion in requests for roads and public transit from the states over the last year and allocated $6 billion.

FUNDING SOURCE PONDERED

Without a local funding source, new construction is a pipe dream, White said. He suggested state officials consider raising the sales tax or gasoline tax.

The construction council, a coalition formed to study transportation, warned that Pittsburgh will be left behind economically without better roads to attract new companies.

The council's study suggested extending a light-rail along Route 65 north or into the North Hills, building a transit link or new road to the airport and extending transit through southern Allegheny County.

The area's infrastructure was poorly planned, said Lisle Williams, chairman of the construction council.

He said a dozen roads end within a mile of Downtown, which doesn't make sense since thousands of people work Downtown. He said the region lacks an interstate from the city to Pittsburgh International Airport and transit is inadequate.

'I think we need tremendous upgrades - we need a Marshall Plan,' said County Council member Chuck Martoni, who also sits on the board for the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Martoni said 'traffic's bad everywhere' in the county. 'I think the only answer is better transit.'

Court Gould, director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, said rush-hour congestion is bearable for most drivers because 18 percent of the work force uses public transit. Sustainable Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group that studies quality-of-life issues, evaluated the results of the Texas study.

'I think the point is that Pittsburgh has a comparatively high ridership of transit,' Gould said. 'In our metro area, better transit service means congestion is less of a burden.'

But Gould stopped short of giving area transit an A for accessibility. He said rail service to the airport and suburbs east of the city are needed.

NOT A PROBLEM

Kevin Silson, a board member of Sustainable Pittsburgh, said the parkway swells with traffic, but commuting on Interstates 79 and 279 in the North Hills is a breeze.

'People in Pittsburgh don't know how well off they are,' he said.

Port Authority's largest project in the planning stages is the North Shore connector. The $390 million project would extend light-rail from Downtown to the new sports stadiums on the North Shore by tunneling beneath the Allegheny River.

The authority is also taking the lead in a transportation study of the airport corridor. The $1.6 million study will evaluate the feasibility of widening the Parkway West, expanding rail and bus service or building a toll road from McKees Rocks to the airport.

Richard St. John, a Sustainable Pittsburgh advisory board member, said major investments of public money ought to go toward public transit.

'From what I've heard nationally, cities that try to build their way out of congestion with new highway construction generally don't have great success,' St. John said.

Gordon Ovenshine can be reached at govenshine@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7932.

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