What with Pittsburgh's mayor candidates forgetting about police, fire and bankruptcy to talk about, spiffy new trolleys and trains have seemed like a smorgasbord of glorious future transit the last couple of months. Last week, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato sketched out his own transit ideas, a mix of forward-looking investments and long-overdue pragmatism.
First, the practical: Onorato is but the latest to join Save Our Transit founder Stephen Donahue and others in suggesting a regional transit authority, which would ideally please riders and accountants alike. All it takes is our regional transportation board, the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, to start talks among other county transit agencies.
Onorato also drew attention to another option with unfulfilled potential: With better plans and promotions, additional development may be possible around T stations and park-and-ride lots. A third Onorato proposal that could be both sensible and profitable is offering private delivery companies use of the East, South and West Busways - for a price. The trick, though, would be to use the plan to raise money for transit, not offer a "business-friendly" giveaway, in which new revenues are eaten up by new enforcement costs.
Short-term suggestions aside, the real excitement came from contemplating shiny new transit: Onorato backed at least three new rail proposals. First, he joined the chorus calling for rapid transit between Downtown and Oakland, a "corridor that's been literally under study since the late 1960s," says the Port Authority's Judi McNeil.
Onorato's twist would be an elevated train, either light rail or heavier commuter rail, traveling from the First Avenue T station, along Second Avenue beside the Pittsburgh Technology Center in Hazelwood and up Panther Hollow, with another possible line headed farther up the Monongahela.
When the similar "Spine Line" proposals were contemplated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was plenty of room along Second Avenue for a ground-level train, McNeil says. Now there might not be. The opportunity was missed because "we did not have community or political support," she says; Republican County Commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer killed the idea in 1996.
In his other rail proposals, Onorato added steam to long-discussed hopes for rail to the airport and putting commuter passengers in existing rail corridors, such as the Allegheny Valley Railroad or along Route 8.
Is it foolhardy wishful thinking, or is this an opportune moment for transit?
With a high city parking tax, and with expensive gas, more middle-class people are looking to public transportation. The Port Authority reports that its ridership has climbed for six of the last eight months.
But for new transit ideas to maintain their momentum, there's one thing that has to come first, claims McNeil. For now, the state's transit agencies are cruising on $412 million that Gov. Ed Rendell "flexed" their way in February. However, McNeil says, a "growing and predictable source of funding" is still needed from the state legislature. "None of these ideas can be accomplished without dedicated funding."