Thursday, April 26, 2012

Problems in Pittsburgh

A street in Shadyside
In a departure from my normal topic, today I am going to write about Pittsburgh, where I have just visited after a very long hiatus. I still have friends left from the time I lived there, and remember many good places to go (plenty of great dive bars, and "Happy Hour" is legal!). The city has approximately half the population of Boston, but a similar kind of "neighborhood" feel to it. There are plenty of good walking streets, and a sizable collection of parks named for the rich robber baron benefactors who still seem to hover over the city.

There are also considerable patches of empty or disinvested space. Part of this is due to geography, with the three rivers and many steep hills, it has always posed a challenge. But everyone knows Pittsburgh as the former prototypical "steel town" which collapsed, people and money fleeing outward to the sprawling suburbs and beyond. That combined with "urban renewal", bringing in civic arenas and massive elevated highways that cut off neighborhoods and blighted large areas, sent the city into a downward spiral from which it is still climbing out. It has largely reinvented itself as a financial and scientific center, with many banking headquarters as well as world class universities.
Central Northside
However, there's still a long way to go. Just take a stroll around Downtown in the early evening and you will notice a disturbing trend: shops are closing up, and the only people you see are eager to leave, waiting by the numerous bus stops. The Fort Pitt bridge and tunnel are jammed to a standstill with commuters heading home, as the immense downtown parking garages empty out. In a few hours, the city is silent and mostly empty. I had hoped this had changed in the years since I left, I know there are efforts to try and diversify uses, but it seems not to be so.

An even more disturbing crisis is brewing, one that will be familiar to Bostonians: the Port Authority (PAT) which runs the public transportation system, is facing a $64 million deficit and is proposing a plan that incorporates incredibly drastic service cuts as well as fare hikes. It eliminates nearly half of all routes, cuts service on the others, raises Zone 1 fares to $2.50, Zone 2 to $3.75, and hurts paratransit as well. As one of my friends put it, this plan will likely lead to economic devastation in Pittsburgh, as the roads and parking lots become even more clogged with additional commuters.

First Avenue Station, facing the portal

Historically, Pittsburgh has had a relatively good bus system. It is based on the very extensive trolley network that employed nearly 700 streetcars, and it was largely abandoned in the 1960s, with the exception of a few South Hills routes. The modern subway system under the streets of Downtown was mostly constructed in the 1980s, though it did re-use a couple of old tunnel sections and a railroad bridge. Curiously, it is also named the "T" and uses a very similar logo to Boston. The South Hills light rail trains access several downtown stations using this subway, and all travel within the downtown area is free of charge due to the fare collection system used by PAT. Essentially, all buses and trains collect fare on boarding when headed inbound, and on alighting when headed outbound, at least during peak. I always found the rule to be somewhat confusing, especially when taking a "crosstown" bus, but it does keep things moving in the most congested areas.

Unfortunately, the light rail system does not extend eastward to the heavily populated neighborhoods of Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, although that was proposed nearly twenty years ago. As a result, ridership on the trains only constitutes about 11% of total weekday ridership, the rest being carried by buses. Pittsburgh pioneered the use of dedicated busways in the United States, with roads running south, east and west, and they have been very successful for providing access to the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. The inner portions of the city don't enjoy such amenities, other than a contra-flow bus lane on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. There are, however, several trunk roads which each carry a number of routes, that provides very decent effective headways for many trips.

Detached single family homes, across from a major "T" station

On March 25th, the Port Authority opened the North Shore Connector for the "T" subway. I made sure to check it out while I was visiting. It connects the subway to a new Gateway Center station downtown, and then burrows in two single-track tubes under the Allegheny river to two new stations on the North Shore. A curious thing I noticed about the new tunnels is that they have a continuous platform throughout their length, probably to enhance rescue operations. The two new stations are near the baseball stadium (PNC Park) and the football stadium (Heinz Field), as well as the science museum and the casino.

The cost of the North Shore Connector was $523.4 million for a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) line, clocking in at approximately $270 million/km. Which is actually pretty cheap when compared to other United States projects, and that includes the money which went into the overly elaborate headhouse for the Gateway Center station. The extension has been accused by Senator McCain of being a boondoggle, but that was likely a partisan (or spiteful) opinion, since it was funded partially through ARRA. However, even Governor Rendell had reservations about it, calling the Connector a mistake. There are some disturbing aspects of the project, since the two North Shore stations are swaddled in parking lots and elevated highways. However, if there is further extension into Manchester, then I think it will turn out to have been a great bargain after all.

The first thing you see upon exiting the North Side T station

It's unfortunate that the Federal government decided to play games with transportation funding in Pennsylvania, especially when they forbade the tolling of I-80. It would be especially shameful if this led to the self-destruction of PAT and the consequent economic devastation to the city of Pittsburgh. I hope, for the city's sake, that it does not come to that.

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