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End of the Trolley Line?

Port Authority cuts threaten the 52 Allentown, a living link to Pittsburgh's lost streetcars

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In her living room, Allentown lifer Judy Hackel has a painting of an old-fashioned streetcar from her childhood -- the one whose route is today loosely covered by the modern 52 Allentown T.

 

 

As head of the Allentown Civic Association, she enlists the trolley as a picturesque ambassador for her neighborhood (which she must usually explain is above the South Side, not in eastern Pennsylvania). With its tight grid of hilly streets, Allentown does look a little like the opening shot of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, making the trolley a perfect touch. "We just did a new branding," she says proudly, "'Allentown: Closer Than You Think,' and the image is a trolley with the city in the background."

 

Yet Hackel seldom actually rides the trolley, which carries a mere 300 people a day. She works in Oakland, at UPMC Children's Hospital. The 52 Allentown runs only to Downtown.

 

Still, Hackel is worried about the Port Authority's funding crisis: If additional state funding doesn't materialize by March 6, the transit agency will make service cuts and raise fares 25 cents. The 52 will be one of many routes to simply disappear.

 

"Port Authority is not only taking my trolley away, but my promotional campaign!" she laments.

 

Before the 1980s, the Allentown line used the classy-looking 1930s-style PCC streetcars. Although it now uses modern light-rail cars, the 52 is arguably the last streetcar line in Pittsburgh.

 

"What's unique about the Allentown line is it's a classic streetcar line, and it serves neighborhoods," says Scott Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa. Plus, he says, it climbs possibly the steepest hill traversed by light rail in the country.

 

The rest of the Port Authority's light-rail system -- the T -- runs largely on a separate right-of-way, not streets, except where it passes through Beechview. That's partly what saved the corridor for rail when buses replaced the other streetcars in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Bus vs. rail is still a debate: Bus advocates -- including the Port Authority -- cite buses' relative cheapness and flexibility. Rail boosters argue that rail attracts so many more passengers-by-choice that it justifies the higher initial cost.

 

Allentown was likely home to the city's first electric streetcar. In 1887 or 1888, the Pittsburgh, Knoxville and St. Clair Street Railway opened its "13th Street Electric Line," an experimental venture close behind San Francisco's early electric rails. One old news clip says the 13th Street line was the first electric trolley west of the Allegheny Mountains, although another mentions an earlier attempt on the North Side (then called Allegheny).

 

The Allentown line is probably lucky to have survived this long: In the 1980s, when the Port Authority was working on the larger light-rail lines, the city was reconstructing Allentown's main drag, Warrington Avenue. Although early drafts of the T plans contained nothing of the sort, an ambitious grass-roots campaign won new rails for Warrington's new asphalt. Hackel doesn't expect such a campaign 20 years later.

 

"At my meetings, people have said, 'What's going to happen with Port Authority?' not, 'We have to go storm the Port Authority,'" she says. "There are so many other issues in Allentown."

 

As an inner-city neighborhood where half the households make less than $25,000, Allentown needs excellent transit to prosper. "We should be glad people are working, not making it harder to get to work," Hackel says. "The politicians, how many of them work off-shifts and depend on the bus?" Thirty percent of Allentowners take transit to work, says the 2000 census, but not necessarily the trolley, which runs only hourly on weekdays. The 46K Knoxville bus is more frequent, with weekend service, too. There's also the smaller 41E Mount Washington, and the Oakland-bound 54C. As a last resort, residents can tackle a 15-minute slog up the hill from Carson Street or South Hills Junction.

 

 Now, as with so many city things, the future of the 52 Allentown might depend on suburbanites. The 52 doesn't use the trolley tunnel, making its track a valuable detour for the South Hills-bound T when the tunnel needs repairing. And if you've got the track already, you might as well run some trains, right?

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