All this talk about transit from the mayoral candidates is a welcome change for bus and T riders. They've been cooking up transit ideas as quickly as forum sponsors can set out cookie tables, from Bob O'Connor's streetcar scheme to Michael Lamb's and Bill Peduto's support for the long-sought holy grail of Pittsburgh transit, East End light rail.
But thanks to the Port Authority's precarious funding, these ideas are a little like food fantasies on a deserted island. The Port Authority can no more lay light-rail tracks than it could outfit every rider with a hydrogen-powered hovercraft. It's left to the city's most idealistic transit boosters to bring us a reality check.
On Tue., April 26, the Allegheny County Transit Council (Port Authority's official riders' group) is sponsoring a public forum on Bus Rapid Transit for Oakland. BRT comes in a variety of set-ups that give buses an advantage over cars and trucks. With light-rail becoming harder to fund, since its initial costs are daunting, cities are checking out various BRT schemes (most commonly, bus-controlled stoplights and dedicated lanes). Pittsburghers can soon enjoy BRT in Cleveland's Euclid Avenue corridor, where two of four travel lanes will be given over to electric trolley buses.
While there's no formal proposal coming from the Port Authority, two of the agency's planners, Dave Wohlwill and Rich Feder, will be on hand at the BRT forum to describe what BRT could mean for Oakland. Also present will be city reps, engineers, architects and 14 co-sponsoring community groups.
Pittsburgh already has some BRT: the busways, which can be as fast as rail, without the comfort and prestige. But there's no room for a new busway like the EBA through Oakland's busiest corridor, Fifth and Forbes avenues. According to the charismatically named 2004 Oakland Transit Whitepaper from the Oakland Task Force, Oakland has a daytime population of 114,000, including workers, students, residents and visitors. Although a lot of these people (particularly students) live and work in Oakland, the neighborhood remains car-dominated: Just 20 percent (23,000) arrive there by transit, compared to 50 percent of Downtown workers. It's thus the third-largest trip generator in the state, after Philadelphia's and Pittsburgh's downtowns.
BRT plans work best when buses have their own lanes. The current Fifth Avenue bus lane, installed in 1980 with some controversy, is a start.
Other BRT innovations, such as stoplights that can be triggered by bus drivers to stay green longer (or change from red more quickly), are less drastic than busways. Of course, in the busiest part of Oakland, from Craft Avenue to Craig Street, there are literally bus stops at every block. To move things along, some stops (for instance, near Children's Hospital or the Cathedral of Learning) could be combined into mega-stops, with nice passenger perks, such as real-time bus-arrival information.
The biggest criticism of BRT is that it's not trains. Trains have a certain appeal that seems to make people choose transit when they could afford to drive: Just ask how Mount Lebanon would like a busway instead of the T.
Jon Robison, a forum organizer and longtime Oakland resident, still carries the torch for the Spine Line, the light-rail proposal killed in the 1990s by the county commissioners that would have seen trains from Downtown to the Hill, Oakland, Hazelwood and Homestead. "I didn't think much of BRT at first, because I was hung up on light rail," he admits. "But if this helps people get out of their cars, it could [lead to] light rail in the future."
For now, at an estimated light-rail cost of $2 billion to the Port Authority and federal government, Robison says, "They're more likely to build a light rail in Baghdad than in Oakland."Bus Rapid Transit Forum. Tue., April 26, 6:30 p.m. Connelly Ballroom, Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. 412-421-9749 or 412-683-0237.