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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pittsburgh needs to Advance Transit

Pittsburgh's poor transit system is one of the big reasons why the city is not mentioned as a leading sustainable city in the annual sustainability rankings that are released by a few publications each year. With all of the service cuts and debates about tax hikes to raise money for public transportation here in Allegheny County, isn't it about time we looked at alternatives to the tax and cut service mentality that has existed since I moved here over ten years ago(and probably long before then) ?

I used the word "privatization" on one of the burgh blogs as a fix for the mess we have here and was immediately chastised, although I don't see why people didn't look beyond the 'P' word to see examples of successful transit privatization programs in places such as Denver. Privatization of public transit, or at least partial privatization through contracting, has had success in some regions, such as Denver, but it also has had its share of failures. Private transportation, it has been argued, does not cover enough ground as it has zero incentive to cover less than optimal routes. While I have not seen this in action, I could see a for-profit transit company only running routes that are profitable - just like a lot of companies today that focus on customer profitability.

How about a public-private partnership run transit service? Advance Transit is a free bus service covering parts of New Hampshire and Vermont that was started by a non-profit back in 1984. I repeat, Advance Transit is free, and its been around for over 20 years. The service relies on a combination of federal, state, and private donations in order to operate effectively, and at an operating cost of $2.8 million per year, it provides better bang for the buck than traditional public transit.

From the Clean Air Cool Planet website:

Some of the goals of the project are to reduce local traffic congestion, to provide commuters with an efficient and convenient alternative to driving alone, to improve access to local jobs, to provide mobility to senior citizens who are not driving, and to offer convenient transit access to area hospitals, shopping centers, schools, and community agencies.

What is not to like about this program? What would it take to get something like this here in Pittsburgh? For starters, there is a growing concern with the lack of contributions from the powerful non-profits in Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (known as UPMC in these parts) is a non-profit that raked in over $500 million in profits last year. The city cannot tax them but it needs to find ways to get them to foot part of the bill for city services.

A public-private transit partnership makes sense here in Pittsburgh. The old public transit will not vanish, but augmentation with new services is necessary to keep this region from going from most livable to most taxed and least commutable. It is time to implement new solutions for our transit problems that are proven to work instead of the same old solution we have done in the past - which is to cut service and raise fares and taxes. It is time to open up to new ideas instead of going with the status quo which has brought up to this point.

While more light rail coverage would be ideal, that won't happen overnight. A new network of public and privately funded buses could be a reality tomorrow.


jet said...

A really good first step would be to replace the 8 out of 9 Port Authority board members who have no public transit experience.

No amount of money is going to fix a system run by political appointees who don't see a problem authorizing all sorts of excess benefits for an outgoing CEO. (See yesterday's Post-Gazette for the gory details.)

Alternatively, allow them to keep their jobs but require them to ride public transit to and from work every day and require their families to use public transit to get to school, run errands, etc. Then maybe they'd be a bit more interested in fixing problems.

James Edward Dillard said...

taaake 2

it's not just advance transit that pittsburgh needs - it needs to plan for public transportation. the reason we have huge automobile issues in the united states is because we plan for automobiles - we design roads and cities around them (because we value individuality so highly and few inventions have ever promoted individuality as much as the car... but that's another story).

the problem with that is that demand for new road ways is a typical - by increasing the supply, instead of simply lowering the cost (lowering congestion time), you actually raise the demand as well.

because of this as pittsburgh continues to develop, it's essential that we accept auto congestion and try to provide other, more efficient (read: public) methods of transportation.

Schultz said...


I agree 100%. The answer here and other cities like Atlanta, has been to build roads and add lanes to highways rather than implement projects like rail extensions. Atlanta's beltway, route 285, is notorious for this. They keep adding lanes, and the congestion keeps getting worse. Expanding their MARTA rail line would make the most sense, as would expanding the coverage of Pittsburgh's T. Unfortunately, the federal money went to the North Shore Connector rather than connecting downtown to Oakland and the eastern neighborhoods.

The Mon-Fayette Expressway has been an interesting debate that pits people for economic development in the area against the environmentalists. A connector would come into the city of Pittsburgh over the MON to the 376 parkway near the South Oakland exit. The congestion at this exit is already bad, so this is probably not the best place for the new road to connect to, not the mention this adds another sprawling highway to our riverfront. On the plus side, congestion at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel would be reduced, and the towns in the Mon valley town would no longer have an excuse as to why they have been hurting economically.

Interesting that I found this story from the Pittsburgh based Group Against Smog and Pollution that is in support of the Mon Fayette Connector. Their argument is that it would relieve congestion and provide economic relief to the mon valley towns. I think that there has to be some balance - I'm not sure how you bring that highway into Pittsburgh, but it is essential that another route besides the Squirrel Hill Tunnel route is introduced.

My solution is to not bring the Mon Fayette expressway into Pittsburgh, but rather to have a light rail be built along the MLK east busway with an extension of that rail from Wilkinsburg out to the Monroeville.