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A Desire Named Streetcar

Bob O'Connor says 'Forward into the past!'

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The shorthand on mayoral hopeful Bob O'Connor is that he's the old fogies' candidate. Vote for Bob, and you'll be drinking Duquesne Beer at Forbes Field, under the dark and sheltering skies of industry.

 

 

Last week, O'Connor confirmed and improved on this caricature. He called an official-looking press conference, with maps. The future, O'Connor said, is in streetcars -- specifically rebuilding Fifth and Forbes trolley lines between Downtown and Oakland for about $10 million a mile. The work, he said, would be funded with theoretical private donations or some new federal funding stream.

 

"Forward to the past!" quipped his spokesman, former PennDOT vaudevillian Dick Skrinjar.

 

A bored and depressed press galley -- OK, maybe that's just me after a mayoral race so far only about saving money -- hopped on this idea like Roger Rabbit on Jessica.

 

The brilliance of O'Connor's idea is that he's not just going after his base, the I-remember-Isaly's crowd. These streetcars are for the kids. Just like their friends in Portland have! Quoted in the Post-Gazette, O'Connor weirdly channeled Richard Florida: "Quality of life is the most powerful economic strategy. [T]hat's what really caught my eye, especially as we're trying to retain young people and all these people going to our universities."

 

Like a good politician, O'Connor pitched a big tent, by tossing in a promised revival for the Hill District, too. However, Fifth and Forbes avenues -- often called Uptown or Soho -- are somewhat isolated from the neighborhood's historic heart on Centre and Wylie avenues.

 

O'Connor's right about one thing: There is a real need for better, faster connections between Downtown and Oakland, and for a boost to the Hill. After downtown Philadelphia, Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, respectively, are the No. 2 and No. 3 employment centers in the state. Skrinjar counts 100,000 people coming in and out daily -- as many as on the Parkway West, East or North, he said.

 

For transit activists, it was O'Connor's thought that counted. Transit was not among the issues in the 2001 mayoral race -- in which O'Connor was also a candidate -- and by raising it now in such a catchy way, "he's done us a favor," says Jonathan Robison, a longtime transit activist and Oakland resident.

 

"However," Robison continues, "I'm very unconvinced that this is the way to go."

Streetcar desire has always been stronger than streetcar satisfaction, and it took about five minutes for transit advocates to spot the practical flaws in O'Connor's proposal.

 

First, streetcars travel on streets, where they compete with other vehicles. All the streets from Downtown to Oakland are busy during the day, none more so than Fifth and Forbes. (To be fair, Skrinjar says O'Connor isn't wedded to the Fifth and Forbes route.) The only thing that would truly beat, not compete, with cars is the late, lamented "Spine Line," a light-rail route proposed from Downtown to the Hill, Oakland, Panther Hollow, Hazelwood and Homestead.

 

Second, the trip between Downtown and Oakland is the easiest bus ride in the city. Eight routes ply these roads. It's not like being whisked along by fairy dust, but what do you people want?

 

It would be great for Uptown if some of those loud, diesel-spewing buses could be replaced with something nicer. But unless you plan to stretch car lines all the way out to the end of all eight routes in McKeesport, Wilkinsburg, Highland Park and so on, you'll have to keep the buses to serve people headed for points farther east. A quicker help to the noise and pollution in Uptown would be electric buses.

 

Third, streetcars are different from the T. The T is light rail, while streetcars use a different type of track that's not necessarily compatible. A South Hills-to-Oakland commuter still would have to transfer Downtown.

 

I've romantically pined for trolleys myself, but the Port Authority folks have always crushed my dreams: Streetcars can't detour and they're more expensive, they say.

 

Can aesthetics without practical improvements win over enough new transit users? There might be a novelty appeal at first, but remember how the Allegheny River water taxi only lured a few drivers out of the Route 28 congestion, even when the highway was severely clogged by road construction?

 

Portland's streetcars, which O'Connor cites as a model, aren't really for commuters. They've been used to circulate people around a redeveloped part of downtown. But O'Connor isn't all wrong: There are some places where retro transit could great for Pittsburgh -- or so I'm inclined to believe.

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