Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Notes: Managing Passions

Yoga for the #newworld

Bus Rapid Transit: the push is back on, with local executives piling on political support.

A preliminary estimate of the overall cost is $200 million and the project would have to prevail in a highly competitive federal grant program to move ahead, Ms. Stern said. A federal grant would likely cover only 50% of the cost. (P-G, John Schmitz)

The application is due in October. The benefits sought are an economic development surge, cascading infrastructure upgrade opportunities, a more intense and striking public transit gateway along a strategic corridor, and of course increased service efficiency along it. But before anybody swoons with pleasure, remember the fate of the Penguins TIGER application and read the introduction to this federal program.


A City police officer drove to work drunk. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.

This was an apple flagged for badness previously:

Officer Gibson was charged with insurance fraud in late 2011 after he admitted to lying to an insurance appraiser, saying that his car was struck when he had actually damaged it while parking. As a result, the bureau transferred him from the bureau's North Side station to the warrant office pending an internal investigation. 
In July of last year, a Common Pleas judge sentenced him to complete 200 hours of community service and fined him $200 under the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which is for first-time offenders who can fulfill certain requirements with the hopes their charges will be withdrawn. Court records indicated he had not yet completed the program. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Routine consequences for an officer committing conduct "unbecoming of an officer" ought to be seriously attended; at least such a thing is worth considering. Numbly reinforcing officer privilege seems not to be doing them many favors.


The world has lost a most unusually successful 20th Century leader in Nelson Mandela.

There was violence, primarily white-on-black violence which then provoked black-on-white violence, despite a Gandhian philosophic core of the blacks’ approach to the struggle, and Mr. Mandela was prominent in the direction of the African National Congress’ armed Spear of the Nation militia, even from prison. 
But what stands out as Mr. Mandela’s signature characteristic was his belief in the need for forgiveness to achieve his goal of a democratic, multiracial South Africa. That was remarkable in someone who was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of those spent breaking rocks on an island penal colony. (P-G, Editorial Triumph)

That is a relevant detail for anyone that has been trying get down to the heart of the matter. That being that forgiveness can be so wondrously pragmatic.

Meanwhile, the Trib is praising Mandela for renouncing "Stalinist 'progressivism'", which I think we are obliged to accept as a proof of a certain tortured conservative luminescence.


  1. Does anyone else think it's a total laff riot that Joanna Huss nee Doven is falling head over heels for Debra Lam and the Peduto Way after this slagfest from less than a year ago, as reported by both the PG and Trib? ...

    Joanna Doven, the mayor's press secretary, blasted Mr. Peduto, who, along with Mr. Lamb, is challenging her boss for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

    "This is Bill Peduto being classic Bill Peduto. He'll say and do anything popular at the moment to benefit himself,'' she said in a statement. "Keep in mind that this is the same Bill Peduto who just a few years ago signed his name on a letter asking a judge for leniency toward his convicted friend and City Councilwoman. This request after she was found guilty of stealing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars. This latest stunt just once again shines light on the hypocrisy of Bill Peduto.''

    1. That was a noteworthy mistake. But when the Police Chief fell under grave scrutiny yet the administration stood by him prior to having a certain supplemental meeting with authorities, and this all during the heat of the fanfare of a primary election… I'm just saying circumstances were challenging.

    2. I don't think it was a mistake. There is nothing wrong with standing with your friends and professional associates. He recognized that she did something very wrong and balanced it with the good she had done in her life and made a recommendation based upon that. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. I would say that it is a testament to his ability to wade into controversial issues holding his head high.

      People can be so petty.

  2. And by petty---I mean Ravenstahl and Doven/Huss.

  3. in re anon 3:06 I too recall just what a vile and venomous spokeswoman Joanna was. At the time, I could not believe that she was an educated communications specialist. As for her husband Huss, don't forget that he oversaw the chief of police during all the shenanigans, thefts and taxpayer abuses while nobody seems to know anything. Mayor Luke put his trust in these knuckleheads and to an extent, that played into his downfall. So, for them to have the nerve to show their faces now with this new administration, I can't figure out what their angle is. Joanna has said enough, thank you very much. I trust that our new mayor is wise enough to run the other way and not forget how Luke's group ran wild and these two should be run out of tahn.
    Please Bram, don't give me that "looking forward" bunk. Not while they have the gall to open their filthy mouths. Good riddance to old trash!

    1. They were volunteers in an auditorium full of volunteers who were asked to come ("We don't care who you are!") and help out with a semi-historic visioning experiment. Sheesh, "vile venomous and filthy." Come on. I'm instituting the Tony Coghill Rule regarding incessant anonymous personal attacks which add nothing constructive: all further will be deleted, and we'll move to comment moderation if my readership can't handle the transition.

  4. I can't believe Bill has already caved in to Fitzgerald on this BRT project. During his campaign he was all for Light Rail to Oakland. He knows light rail is the better alternative but he won't stand up to Fitzgerald. What's next? Drilling in Frick Park??

    1. Light rail transit (LRT) would be exponentially more expensive than BRT... and it looks like it will be struggle to achieve even BRT-level funding.

      Extending the T would yield many trumping advantages. However, BRT might present a few advantages in addition to cost -- it can present us with opportunities to upgrade our surface and subsurface infrastructure. And redevelop the corridor.

      Of course first we have to vet the idea (our local application of the established idea) and make sure it's not some Urban Renewal 2.0 monstrosity, but that's pretty routine. Folks who live nearby should probably start thinking about what they'd like to see out of such a project.

    2. Taking away two lanes of traffic in the city's busiest corridor doesn't seem to make alot of sense. Light rail is way more expensive but it can attract better opportunities for Fed and state funding. BRT leaves to much financial burden on the City.

    3. It's unclear to me how many lanes of what (parking?) the BBRT would take up where. The studies being undertaken are intended to account for things like bottlenecking near Stations.

    4. Peduto has been a leading proponent of DMU commuter rail to Oakland along lightly-used existing freight tracks that go more north/south. That is an interesting idea but not a substitute for this proposal.

      Anyway, a subway extension of the T to Oakland might be preferable, but as Bram points out that much-studied idea would be way, way more expensive, and thus would be unlikely to get sufficient funding any time in the foreseeable future (note this Oakland subway idea is really over a century old and counting).

      A surface LRT extension to Oakland would not necessarily be preferable, and in fact I personally think would be worse due to the need for passengers from points farther east to make a transfer to use it. With a BRT system, bus riders from farther east could use the system without transfers, in the same way the PXX routes currently use the East Busway for their express run to Downtown. That "overlay" approach would leverage existing routes/riders, and transfers are ridership killers so avoiding them when possible is usually a good idea.

      Generally, different technologies have different applications depending on the situation, and so it is not uniformly the case that LRT is better than BRT. Rather, they each have their place. It happens this is a good application for BRT, since so many already-busy routes funnel into the Oakland/Downtown corridor. That doesn't mean we can't still look at a subway down the road, but I doubt surface LRT will ever be very attractive as an option.

      As a final note, it is worth keeping in mind you could also electrify this route and use trolleybuses for at least some of the service (the PXX-type "overlay" routes would either have to remain self-powered or use a multi-mode technology). Viewed in isolation, trolleybuses are not quite as efficient as LRT, but if you also electrified the Busways you could then scale up your fleet of trolleybuses (and maybe multi-mode buses) over time as capital funding allowed, with growing efficiencies in terms of maintenance and allocation.

    5. Additionally BrianTH, the People seem to want their trolleys.

      It should be noted that there are folks who are creatively and perhaps rationally (pdf) optimistic about the chances of funding LRT. Others are far more skeptical.

    6. Bram, are you suggesting "the People" have a hard preference for LRT over BRT?

      If so, certainly the notion that buses are only for THOSE PEOPLE, and generally the notion that train systems are always superior to bus systems, is pretty common in the United States. However, that is mostly because not a lot of people in the United States have much experience with higher-end bus services. In fact I wonder if you looked just at people who were regular riders of Pittsburgh's own existing BRT system (the Busways) whether they might be less inclined to automatically see BRT as a poor man's version of LRT. Certainly I think being a rider of a Pxx route myself has helped inform my understanding of this issue.

      Anyway, if you look at the report you linked, they put BRT in the same category with streetcars (which may be somewhat useful for simplifying purposes, but is not really accurate in my view unless the streetcars and BRT both have dedicated ROW). There are then two higher categories of rail: "Light Rail and Commuter Rail" and "Heavy Rail/Subway".

      If you read the description of "Light Rail and Commuter Rail", it is not actually applicable to the Oakland/Downtown case: they are talking about longer-haul, higher-speed routes with full grade separation, which is not how a surface LRT route should or could work in Oakland.

      So really the choices for Oakland are just streetcars or a subway. I've noted I don't think the streetcar approach is actually preferable in this case.

      So that leaves whether they have a solution to financing the billions a subway would cost. Again, if you look at what they describe as financing options, absent grants of a magnitude unlikely to be achievable in the foreseeable future, you are looking at either very large bonds or some sort of PPP. I really don't see PAT getting the authority to issues bonds of the necessary magnitude in the foreseeable future either, which I believe leaves the PPP.

      But I'm not at all sure a PPP is any more practical than any of the other options--again, this is a LOT of money. And even if theoretically possible, a PPP could have some serious downsides, particularly if it interfered with using a common fare structure, as it almost surely would at least early on (the private partner would want to start getting a serious return on its capital sooner rather than later).

      None of this is to suggest there is no long term way of doing a subway. But I really think it is not likely to be feasible in the near future. Meanwhile a BRT system could be generating value and in fact building the ridership base for a future subway. And even assuming a subway is eventually done, the "overlay" portion of the BRT system would continue to be valuable indefinitely.

      So I don't see much downside to trying to get the BRT system funded, while also not abandoning the idea of doing the subway some day.

    7. I was just making an offhand comment there's a lot of sentiment for electrified trolleys. Probably fueled by nostalgia, plus the little bit on energy sustainability. Of course we could also aim to fuel the busses on the natural gas drilled from Frick Park.

    8. I think the "killer app" for Pittsburgh transit technology would be multimode trolleybuses (multimode trolleybuses can use either overhead wires or internal power when wires aren't available) using natural gas for their off-wire power.

      And maybe stick a Westinghouse nuclear plant at the other end of the wires for good measure.

  5. You are absolutely right Bram. Ms. Doven-Huss is capable of class and should be given the opportunity to prove it. Water under the bridge flows to the sea and evaporates into the atmosphere, producing life-sustaining precipitation and all that. Here's her comment on the PG's weekend piece on Debra Lam:

    Joanna Huss19 hours ago
    I attended the transition meeting and was in Debra's innovation subcommittee. I was extremely impressed with her leadership style and broad knowledge of government issues and challenges. Pittsburgh is fortunate she has returned!

  6. There is certainly no guarantee of federal funding for evenly highly meritorious transit projects, particularly not in any given round. However, I do think this particular project would be competitive (much more so than the Lower Hill TIGER application, for example). And if you are looking for positive precedents, the East Liberty Transit Center, a BRT project, did in fact get a TIGER grant.

    Moreover,it is not a one-and-done situation. And personally, I think it is entirely possible that in a few years, the capital funding situation for transit will get somewhat more favorable at either the state or federal level or both.

    So it makes sense to work up a real proposal as soon as feasible, then keep trying even if you don't get funding in the first round.

  7. I don't know if you have linked this before, but this recent study discusses and compares BRT and LRT at length, including an assessment of their technological capabilities and observed development impacts, and it includes an extended case study of the East Busway/East Liberty:

    I think one possible takeaway from this study is that when it comes to predicting the development potential, the details of the technology are not actually all that important. Most important is having a route with fundamentally high potential (e.g., existing market demand, developable land, and CBD service), followed by having good public support (in terms of planning, zoning, targeted investment, and so on).

    Given all that, Uptown likely counts as a pretty good opportunity from a fundmentals perspective, and then the next key factor would be the public support. Again, the technology is not so important from a development perspective, although I think it would score as more important if you were focusing instead on transportation benefits.

    1. The BRT is a complete waste of time and money. It connects two areas that are already connected and does not at all connect the Hill to anything. I am literally shocked that the same people who a criticizing the Pens for not actually connecting the Hill are giving the BRT a free pass. It does nothing for the HIll and does nothing for Oakland. All it does is waste money and divert attention from real transit solutions.

    2. I'm not sure why you are bringing up the Hill--that is just one of many parts of Pittsburgh that would not be directly served by this particular project.

      Generally, though, I would question your premise that if there is already transit service along a route, then improving service along that route is necessarily a waste of time and money.

    3. Plus in regards to Uptown there's that whole issue of where they're going to insert the stations what for the transit oriented development...

    4. Improving transit is one thing. Spending $300 million to make the trip take 7 minutes rather than 13 minutes raises eyebrows. Especially when doing so creates more traffic problems and takes the eye off the prize and other very real transit solutions. This seems like a lazy reaction to someone offering some money to study this and try and get some low hanging fruit so that politicians can proclaim victory

    5. The idea of a BRT corridor in Downtown/Oakland has actually been under study for quite a while. It dates back to at least the Eastern Corridor Transit Study conducted by the SPC, which in its Final Report in 2006 included such a corridor among the Locally Preferred Alternatives.

      It was then a major component of the Nelson/Nygaard "Transit Development Plan" process conducted by PAT from 2007-09. They called it "Rapid Bus," and they expanded its scope to routes extending to a variety of points east.

      Sustainable Pittsburgh then put together their BRT Stakeholder Committee in 2010, and the official planning process (managed by PAT and funded in part by the feds) started in 2011. Get There PGH started up the community meetings process in 2012, and the official planning and meetings process continued in 2013, bringing us to today.

      Anyway, since at least the ECTS, part of the appeal of the project has been that it is likely to actually relieve traffic and parking conditions in Oakland. That is possible because bus lanes have way higher peak capacity than road lanes.

      Generally, I think there is a widespread misconception that the project would only serve people traveling between Downtown and Oakland. That misconception may related to people thinking of it as the same sort of thing as an LRT line between Downtown and Oakland. I would note that false equivalence is in part the fault of some of the project's proponents, because sometimes they like to talk about a BRT corridor being just like an LRT line.

      However, they are in fact different technologies with different capabilities. Here the Downtown/Oakland corridor could and should just be the central component of a transferless system that fans out along a variety of routes east of the corridor, as envisioned in the TDP's "Rapid Bus" plan and two of the three alternatives currently under study.

      Such a system would serve not just people traveling between Downtown and Oakland but also people traveling to anywhere along the corridor from this entire extended network. That is already a lot of people (it includes all the 61s, 71s, and so on), and could be a lot more people still through a combination of improved service and TOD.

      That, in a nutshell, is why this concept has scored so well throughout this study process dating back to at least the ECTS: it provides very high bang for the buck due to the sheer volume of riders it would likely benefit over the full extent of the resulting system.

    6. By the way, anyone interested in this topic who hasn't seen this already should check it out--it is the presentation from the September 2003 Get There PGH meeting (Meeting #8):

    7. Anon 8:41 - The BRT is 1) an economic development project 2) an infrastructure development project and 3): a public transit development project. (And by the way it's also a trust-building exercise with civic partners). Which dimension of the ball and whether or not our swing is lazy depends on the wood we get on all three.

      I do not share your antipathy for BRT (study and municipal details yet to emerge!) but I agree we should make sure all our LRT research remains on an oven's burner. Task somebody with organizing funding.

  8. In brief response to Bram at 8:33: I assume final station selection will follow selection of the preferred alignment (they are looking at either two lanes on Fifth or on each on Fifth and Forbes, and also two different approaches to Downtown). But the presentation I linked had a page on this (17), including some possibilities.

    I'd just note in addition that TOD when it comes to BRT can work a little different from LRT due to this transferless-access possibility. What that means is that related development activity can spread out all along the access routes. This effect can be further enhanced if you upgrade and brand some of those access routes as part of the BRT system--that was the nature of "Rapid Bus," and I believe that is what is being represented in the Modified Collector slide in the linked presentation above.

    Given all that, related TOD sites could extend WAY past Uptown--as far out as Homewood, Wilkinsburg, Homestead . . . even McKeesport. Of course exactly how ambitious you can be that far out would remain to be seen.

    1. My understanding is that we have our eyes set immediately on Morewood Ave. or similar distance, depending upon the preferred alignment. The study presumably will include a recommended preferred alignment.

    2. Yeah, they were talking about a park-and-ride and station a bit west of Morewood, but CMU has plans for those parking lots already (the new quad they announced recently).

      Anyway, all those are decisions still to be made, although it should be narrowed down considerably in the next planning phase.