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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bring Streetcars back to Pittsburgh

NYU Law Student and former Southsider Michael Byrne wrote a compelling opinion piece in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on bringing streetcars back to Pittsburgh. The late Mayor Bob O'Connor had a vision for bringing back streetcars as a way to spur development and provide an affordable connection of downtown to the universities and hospitals. O'Connor was ridiculed by some of his opponents in the 2005 Democratic primary, but I'm not so sure those same people who argue against the streetcar idea after having read Mr. Byrne's piece.

I've been a proponent of extending the light rail from downtown to Oakland, but with the cost of that extension probably running in the hundreds of millions, coupled with the current North Shore Connector project that will cost at least half a billion, additional light rail extensions at this time or in the near future are not likely. Streetcars, as Mr. Byrne points out, are a very cost effective way to extend mass transit while at the same time encouraging economic development along the streetcar lines. Look at the table below of the costs of implementing streetcars in a number of cities that are already reaping the benefits of the economic development . In Portland alone there was over $2.28 billion in transit oriented development within two blocks of the street car lines. It looks and sounds like a no brainer to me too.

So what is keeping Pittsburgh from doing something like this? Right now Pittsburghers are currently suffering from a lack of forward thinking from our political leaders. Instead of expanding light rail to the masses, we're stuck digging a tunnel under the river that will connect virtually zero neighborhoods to the two stadiums and the casino. The tunnel and connector were not a prerequisite to new development - that was already happening on the North Shore, but we're stuck with it since the federal government was providing matching funds.

How would we fund new streetcar lines here in Pittsburgh? As Mr. Byrne points out, the Federal Transit Authority offers grants for smaller scale transportation projects. Known as "Small Starts", the FTA provides grants for the "capital costs associated with new fixed guide way systems, extensions, and bus corridor improvements. " This is one source of funding our congressmen should be fighting for.

Additionally, as they did in Portland, private corporations could be enticed to join in the funding effort through sponsorships. This is particular interesting here in the city of Pittsburgh, where non-profit entities make up a large chunk of our employers and take up a lot of land that could be used for tax revenue generating businesses. Today, the non-profits are contributing voluntarily to a fund that is supposed to assist in the city with its financial woes. That fund is set to expire, and if some political leaders had their way they would overturn Act 55 and force non-Profits like UPMC to pay taxes on their excess income.

Taxing non-profits is not the way to go. It only creates an us-against-them mentality while the city, UPMC, and other non-profits should be looking to form a partnership. The city should work with the non-profits in forming an annual fund where the non-profits would make investments in the city for specific infrastructure improvement or enhancement projects. A tax that goes into the city's general fund is not fair - especially when the city can use that money at its discretion. Having the non-profit contributions go towards a dedicated project that also provides some benefits to them, like steercar lines, makes the most sense to me.

1 comment:

pittropolis said...

This is a great idea. I just found your blog, keep up the good work.

I also want to echo your comments that Pittsburgh needs leadership at all levels of government. Our public officials need to be innovative and initiate projects that will lead Pittsburgh toward a greener, cleaner, more prosperous future. Let's keep what's unique about Pittsburgh and rethink current norms that let our fair city stagnate.