Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Temporary Improvement -
Permanent Inconvenience

The Allegheny Station of the new light rail North Shore Connector, with Rivers Casino in the background.
When the new rail line opens March 25, the Port Authority's 14 Ohio Valley bus line will end service here instead of continuing into Downtown.        (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

By now, most of us who live in the Ohio River Valley of Allegheny and Beaver Counties (and follow the news) are aware of the threatened end to Port Authority bus service to our area by September of this year. The long-time public transit provider, citing continued shortfalls in funding and a lack of commitment by the state to establish a sustainable funding plan for the future, announced their intent to eliminate the 14 Ohio Valley and 21 Coraopolis routes, along with many others.

This is just the start of what looks to be an interesting year for transportation in our area. "Interesting" as in the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times". As local media and government officials have already begun to touch upon this week, the effects of the imminent closure of the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge at the end of this week are likely to be compounded by repaving work on the very stretch of Route 65 that will see increased traffic loads as a result of the closure.

While recent local focus on Port Authority service has been on the threatened cessation of the 14 Ohio Valley route, a planned change of service to coincide with the opening of the new North Shore Connector stands to impact commuters in different ways - not all of them good.

As the Post-Gazette reported in January, when the new light rail line opens on March 25, the 14 Ohio Valley will end service at the line's Allegheny Station, near Heinz Field. Commuters will then have to transfer to the light rail to continue their commute into Downtown, or in my case, points east.

As I've written before, I don't always take public transit. But when I do, I have my route nicely planned. A one-block walk from home to catch the 14 Ohio Valley, which currently ends its route at the East Busway station near Grant and Liberty. From there, East Busway route P1 or P2 will whisk me to the Homewood station, and it's about a 2-block walk to the 9-1-1 center from there.

After March 25, I would have to transfer to the light rail at Allegheny Station, disembark at Wood Street or Steel Plaza, and then walk to the East Busway station or to the US Steel Tower to catch the P1 or P2 to Homewood.

Perhaps this "adjustment" is meant to soften the blow of the 14's apparent demise if the Corbett administration doesn't man up and decide to do something by September. However, other factors may be contributing to this lack of attractiveness. Consider the criticism leveled at the entire North Shore Connector project since its inception.

One recent new development has been the enlistment of financial support from several stakeholders on the North Shore - the Stadium AuthorityAlco Parking Corporation, Rivers Casino, and the Steelers - to provide enough funding to make the entire new connector part of the existing free fare zone that allows riders to travel the subway under the Golden Triangle without cost.

While that's pretty cool for the occasional weekend excursion or date night, what is the practical impact for the Sewickley area commuter? It seems to me as if the powers that be are making the use of public transit so difficult or impossible that they are hoping commuters just opt to drive into town and park on the North Shore, so that some of these forward-thinking enterprises can recoup some of their investment in the form of parking fees and other spending. That is, if you have a car, or can drive at all. 

An "improvement" such as this only serves to make things more cumbersome in the long run.

On average, using public transit would take me about three times longer than driving, with minimal cost savings at current gas prices since I don't have to pay to park. In my case, it seems as if Port Authority is deliberately trying to get me to rule out public transit as a viable option for commuting.

There are, however, other potential options available to commuters in this area. One is the bus service currently operated by the Beaver County Transit Authority. It's not as easy as it would seem at first blush, however.

According to Kristin Sheleheda, BCTA's Manager of Planning and Technology, the authority is making no plans to increase service in the wake of the impending Port Authority cutbacks. She also stressed that while BCTA makes stops in Allegheny County, all riders must board and/or depart from a location in Beaver County. For many Sewickley commuters, this would mean a "back track" to the Ambridge Park and Ride lot on 11th Street (jointly operated with Port Authority) to board BCTA Route 1 there.

Ms. Sheleheda also stated that current ridership on this route, as well as available parking spaces in Ambridge, doesn't make for a lot of space for additional commuters from Allegheny County. One must also consider the potential impact of the closure of the Port Authority Park and Ride in Moon Township, also slated to occur in September.

Another possibility is the involvement of the private sector in providing transportation. Ohio Township-based  Lenzner Coach Lines stepped in to provide bus service to and from the outer North Hills and Cranberry, after Port Authority service cuts last year. While it's unknown if demand, cost and/or market viability would permit Lenzner to establish a profitable route to replace the 14, Lisa Finigan, Lenzner's Charter Manager, told me that they are "watching".

Perhaps a better question would be how all of this translates into an improved system of moving people around the city and the region, and what this all means to our attractiveness as a destination for prospective employers as well as visitors. I think about this a lot whenever I travel through the North Hills, the North Boroughs, or my old neighborhood in Aliquippa. In my mind's eye I can still see where the streetcars used to run.

You can ask some of the same questions of PennDOT when looking at some of the remnants of the past that they still lean on heavily to support the transportation needs of the future. Consider that the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, opened in 1927, carries about 12,000 cars a day, while the Sewickley Bridge, originally built in 1911 and replaced in 1981, carries around 19,000 cars.

It would seem that the Ambridge Bridge is due for replacement, or at least a plan to do it, but no one seems to be talking about that at all. Jim Struzzi of PennDOT District 11 told me that there are indeed no plans to replace the now 85-year-old span.

Considering that Ambridge is enjoying a revitalization of sorts through the reclamation and redevelopment of older industrial sites, and Aliquippa may be in the running to do the same, the importance of a reliable river crossing here seems hard to understate. 

It took years of politicking and economic uncertainty to replace the first Sewickley Bridge; what will it take to help assure that when Aliquippa and Ambridge are ready to grow in earnest, a strong and reliable bridge will be in place to facilitate it?

I haven't been back here long enough to understand all the nuances of transportation funding in Pennsylvania, but according to several sources one of the main reasons behind all of this trouble is the refusal of the federal government to allow the state to make I-80 a toll road. This was a key part of Act 44 of 2007which also established a funding partnership between the Turnpike Commission and PennDOT.

The federal refusal to allow the tolling of I-80 is what appears to be pinching both PennDOT and the Port Authority now. This sounds to me like building the casino and buying all of the slot machines before the gambling law is passed. Why rely so keenly on something that doesn't exist yet, and is risky to boot?

This analogy probably has something to do with the fact that the bulk of this post is being written in Las Vegas. I don't gamble, however, and neither should those we as citizens entrust with being stewards of critical infrastructure and services.

Governor Corbett has recommendations in hand from a commission that he appointed, but seems content to not act upon them thus far. How do we as a society and a state plan on improving anything when that is the example being set by our leadership?

Have a good week ahead.

Postscript, 2/29/12 12:43 PMPort Authority is holding a required public hearing on their proposed service changes today at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Testimony is expected to continue through 8:00 PM tonight. Check the P-G or Trib websites for more information. 
Also, Port Authority has an online public comment form available. It can be accessed by clicking here.

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