You have to be careful about protesting in Pittsburgh. Step off the wrong curb during an Iraq War protest, and you could find yourself in trouble with the law. After all, we don't want to disrupt Downtown traffic.
It's almost enough to make you want to thank PennDOT. Almost. In a series of recent public meetings about widening Route 28, the state highway agency is actually soliciting protest -- well, community input, really. You could write, "This plan stinks," and they'll give you the pen and paper to do it. A first round of public open forums took place last July, and another series of three has just been completed. Surely this is a kinder, gentler PennDOT. "We feel it's important to get comments from more people," says PennDOT engineer Todd Kravitz, citing numerous groups he has had discussions with as part of the process. At its presentations, PennDOT has even allotted display space for a competing (and seemingly very partial) design alternative from the Riverlife Taskforce and Vollmer Associates.
Maybe agency officials are so accepting of complaints because they are the ones blocking traffic, if current construction and congestion on Route 28 are any indication. Or is there another reason for their well-promoted solicitousness?
After all, PennDOT was not always so responsive. Though officials describe this presentation process as routine and planned, some activists claim otherwise. Preservation Pittsburgh members claim they couldn't get letters to PennDOT answered until they complained to state legislators and other public officials. Only then, they claim, were the public presentations and comment forms forthcoming.
But don't think this project should get the green light. While last year's six design proposals suggested a wide range of possibilities, the options displayed at a June 22 public presentation are down to just two. Disclosing engineering plans might help reassure people about the construction process, but the plans themselves continue to be alarming. In response to complaints, one proposal does save the historically and architecturally significant St. Nicholas Church (where traffic would zoom past closer and faster than ever), but that is really saving the canary while ignoring the rest of the coal mine. Drawings still show some obvious, persistent and unchecked problems, many of which have been apparent for three years or more of planning. And the declining number of options indicates declining interest in some drastic but necessary changes.
For example, despite complaints from numerous circles over the past three years, PennDOT still plans to hack away at distinctive hillside greenery above the roadway and construct massive, multi-story concrete retaining walls. Also, the proposed expansion would necessitate the destruction of 130 or so properties along the roadway and also on Troy Hill above. Where is the explosive outrage from city government? What could be a better indication that these highways -- which just make it easier for suburbanites to leave -- are killing Pittsburgh? According to Kravitz, PennDOT has not yet calculated the dollar value of real estate this project will take off the tax rolls, or the revenue it will cost the city. So just how many more swimming pools will this project close, anyway?
PennDOT and their engineers at Michael Baker don't hide these facts, although they do devote their best rendering technology to largely irrelevant views. Their best animated 3-D videos show the driver's-eye view along the roadway, from which the destroyed neighborhoods and grotesque retaining walls are the least apparent. What about a photomontage showing how those retaining walls will look from Lawrenceville, the Strip and Bigelow Boulevard? What about before-and-after shots of Eggers Street, which will basically disappear? In one irony among many, engineers must make special provisions for the dead -- a cemetery on Troy Hill is carefully preserved. The living get no such courtesy. That only proves that the values here are completely inverted.
Highway construction doesn't alleviate congestion; it only causes more of it, while fomenting the suburban sprawl that kills cities. Pittsburgh is a prime example. The $180 million for this project should go to public transportation, but that is clearly not an option that PennDOT is considering. Clearly, citizens need to protest vociferously directly to their elected officials, not simply at these increasingly ceremonial public presentations.
This proposal doesn't need improved traffic flow. It needs a U-turn.