Build the BRT, please
Yes, we need a zippier way between town and Oakland
What do elevated trains, a subway for streetcars, the “spine line” and Maglev have in common? Each was a proposal to bridge the transportation gap between Downtown and Oakland. Each was duly proposed, studied, debated, and left to die a slow, lingering death. Will “Bus Rapid Transit,” the solution most recently offered by city and county officials, meet a similar fate?
Voters first approved a rapid transit line through Uptown in 1919, following (of course) a 1917 study. The cobblestones of Fifth and Forbes avenues (yes, they’re still there under all that pockmarked asphalt) are littered with the wreckage of dozens of studies and at least 10 other proposals.
BRT would combine reserved bus lanes, new traffic signals and dedicated stations to allow fast, reliable bus service through Uptown. Under this $250 million proposal (which has been under study for a mere six years), the two main arteries would be substantially rebuilt to create a link between Downtown and Oakland that has eluded planners, bus riders and anyone who uses the two streets for the last 100 years.
I have been riding the bus (originally, the streetcar) on these streets for over half of that time. Every aspect of the trip — speed and predictability of service, quality of equipment and streets, overcrowding at rush hour — has steadily declined during that period. No more studies are needed to establish the obvious: Faster, more reliable rapid transit in this crucial corridor would benefit everyone.
Because many Pittsburghers like change about as much as Pittsburgh Dad likes the Baltimore Ravens, BRT has its critics. Their arguments are not new:
• Pittsburgh has big infrastructure problems, $250 million could be better spent elsewhere, and the project’s benefits are unfairly tilted toward Downtown and Oakland.
This argument can be (and has been) used against any large public project. We have to start somewhere, so why not start with a link between the two largest destinations in the city?
• The project will “only” improve travel time by 5 to 7 minutes at peak hours.
This is misleading, since it ignores the fact that the trip time estimates are average figures. The biggest benefit of BRT is that every trip would take the same amount of time and operate on schedule. Long delays frustrate riders and cause
• BRT would disadvantage people with disabilities (who are heavily dependent on transit) and make curb stops for ACCESS and emergency vehicles more difficult.
These are legitimate concerns, but they can be overcome. The new stops would provide a level platform for disabled riders to enter and exit. Access to the curb in Downtown and Oakland is far from ideal now. The traffic improvements brought by BRT would eliminate ancient, dangerous street conditions and allow faster service by emergency and other vehicles.
• The system would require additional transfers.
This is another valid concern, especially if BRT is never extended beyond Oakland (future plans call for service throughout the East End). Pittsburgh’s public transportation lines are a crazy quilt of routes knit together over the last 125 years (I was surprised to discover that the Port Authority is still using some of the route numbers in use at the time of the 1917 study). Riders are accustomed to the current pattern, however illogical and inefficient it may be. All change comes at a price, although the estimates for improvements in travel time do assume some time for transfers.
Finally, BRT has spawned critics who see it as a chance to gain advantage in the mayoral election — if your guy is for it, I’m against it. This cynical attitude by politicians explains, in large part, why Pittsburgh is still using 19th-century infrastructure on some of its most important arteries. (Besides those cobblestones, the city is still using light poles on Fifth and Forbes in Uptown that are survivors from the trolley era.)
Like any large infrastructure project, BRT is not perfect. But it will bring muchneeded improvements to destinations that will only continue to grow in importance. Assuming the current schedule holds (a big assumption), service would not begin until 2021.
I invite anyone who thinks we need another study to find a solution to this 100-year-old problem to join me for a rush-hour sojourn through Oakland on the 71A. By the time you get off, you’ll be a fan of the BRT at just about any cost.