A Better Way Into, and Out of, Town
Instead of Extending the Mon/Fayette into the City, Build Rapid Transit that Goes Beyond the Squirrel Hill Tunnel
Hotline, Fall 2001
by James P. DeAngelis, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh.
Mayor Murphy has qualms about running a spur of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from Braddock to Hazelwood and the Parkway East, along the north bank of the Monongahela River. His concern is that it would impinge on residential development in Nine Mile Run and industrial development at the former LTV coke plant. The mayor is correct. Yet there are additional reasons to oppose this route.
During recent coverage of the mayor’s opposition to the spur into the city of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River, a number of citizens, the Post-Gazette editorial board and many elected officials (most notably City Council President Bob O’Connor) have together expressed a competing view. They favor the north shore alignment advocated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and incorrectly claim, among other things, that the spur will serve as an effective bypass of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and as a neighborhood congestion reliever.
I would like to see serious consideration given to an unthinkable alternative that would have a better chance of achieving the avowed objectives of the spur’s advocates. This alternative is “unthinkable” because it would require significant, coordinated political action by national, state and local elected officials. But if this action occurred, southwestern Pennsylvanians would have a new, potentially innovative means of transportation into and out of the region’s two densest business district destinations (Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland); a Squirrel Hill Tunnel that would be less congested at peak hours; both of the Monongahela River’s banks spared from an unwanted barrier to economic development; and more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
I know — it is too good to be true! But there is a transportation trade-off that is almost a no-brainer. The political action on which the trade-off is contingent is much more challenging.
My suggestion is to replace the spur with a Suburban East Rapid Transit Line (permit me to call it “SubERTL”). It would connect Downtown Pittsburgh through Oakland and Squirrel Hill — using one of the Spine Line alignments — to a location east of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, such as Edgewood Towne Center or the proposed terminus of the Mon-Fayette Toll Road in Wilkins. There should be discussion of which transit technology to use (maglev to surface light-rail transit, but not busways) and hardware partnerships with transit manufacturers.
My expectation is that offering east suburban commuters a truly fast, fairly priced and convenient-to-park-and-ride rapid transit line into the city will reduce demand at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and, depending on station locations in the suburbs, create very desirable shopper traffic in Edgewood and Wilkins.
Since this proposal would replace the spur that Mayor Murphy is correctly contesting on the north bank and that municipal officials and developers do not welcome on the south bank, the Monongahela River banks will be available for development that would benefit from direct river access on both banks.
In other words, there does not seem to be any economic development advantage to the spur along its proposed route, so why have it at all? But since the Turnpike Commission has set aside the funds for the spur, let’s use it to make this region’s core a better place in which to live, work, recreate and travel.
Political action would be required to change various national and state laws or regulations so that the turnpike commission, PennDOT, the Port Authority and others could pool their resources on a rapid transit project and join forces in a unique partnership. The actions would have to enable the transfer of the turnpike commission’s capital improvement funds from the spur to the SubERTL. PAT would need to supplement these funds by giving a high priority to SubERTL and probably forgo some other investments.
Part of the logic for this is that the turnpike commission and PAT are the two major transportation investment and operating entities that are experienced in businesslike financial management practices. They both collect revenues from their customers, know how to price their services, satisfy a diverse clientele, maintain their infrastructure and interrelate their work with governmental agencies, organized labor and businesses.
If we are going to put a significant project like the SubERTL in some public entity’s hands, why not the turnpike commission and PAT? If we are going to enhance the quality of life and invest in our region’s economic future, how can we not take this “unthinkable” step?
Getting highway funds reallocated to transit and other transportation projects has been a noble objective of ISTEA (the federal transportation funding law) since its inception and it has worked in some places. Getting that to happen with highway funds from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is currently impossible. But — if there is political will and public support, maybe it can happen.
I hope our elected officials can find enough common ground in this basic concept to authorize the idea’s official discussion and feasibility analysis.
This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 25, 1998.