Sunday, February 10, 2013

A More Regional Transit Vision

By Shawn Carter

Looks like I get to close out Transit Week here at the Pittsburgh Comet.

On Monday, I asserted that Allegheny County needs to devise a mass transit system that served the "economic interests and day-to-day needs" of the other nine counties in our "designated" region.

Specifically, I intimated that Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania needed a comprehensive commuter rail system.

One that could carry passengers from New Castle to Connellsville, from Avella to Blairsville, from Apollo to Washington, from Butler to Uniontown and everywhere in between.

I've worked through several different representations of what this would look like, but this represents, quite possibly, the most natural of them...  The one we had 70 years ago...

Click to Enlarge

This was commuter rail in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- in 1942.

Ten years before the debut of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway and 18 years before the Fort Pitt Tunnels would open to traffic, Southwestern Pennsylvania had an extensive commuter rail system.

From the turn of the 20th Century until the early 1950's, commuter rail AND intercity passenger rail were provided by:

The major railroads.

This was in addition to the extensive streetcar and bus service provided by the Pittsburgh Railways Company. (be careful, this link is almost 8MB.)

Pittsburgh was the City of Steel, and these rail lines were its arteries.

In fact, if you lived near a pair of these:

You could get anywhere.

A great deal changed in a short time.

By 1954, the Parkways were open and by 1960, the Fort Pitt Tunnels opened.  The railroads shut down almost all commuter rail service during the 1950's, leaving fewer than a handful in operation.

Pittsburgh to College Station (Geneva College) in Beaver Falls (P&LERR) and Pittsburgh to Connellsville.

The Pittsburgh to College Station service -- Which started at a place now familiar to those of us who enjoy some occasional nightlife:

And ended here:

Was discontinued in 1985.

In 1980-1981, PennDOT was doing MAJOR construction work on the Parkway East, and as an alternative, PennDOT provided commuter rail service between Greensburg and Pittsburgh, with stops in Jeannette, Irwin, Pitcairn, Swissvale, Wilkinsburg and the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger terminal Downtown.

It was called the Parkway Limited.  It didn't last beyond the Parkway reconstruction, and was largely supplanted when the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway came on-line in 1983.

Which leaves us with the Pittsburgh to Connellsville service -- and it traveled an even more interesting journey.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad decided, in the early 1970's, to discontinue this route.  City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials fought to keep this route alive, and succeeded.

Does anybody remember this?

PATrain 6691 on the tracks at Grant Street Station in 1981

Or better yet, THIS:

B&O Railroad Station

Port Authority Transit (now Port Authority of Allegheny County), with funding from PennDOT, maintained a truncated version of this route from Versailles to Pittsburgh until 1989 utilizing the same right-of-way.  

This very same right-of-way was at one point considered for the Parkway East, except that it would have disrupted "industry" along the corridor. Which in retrospect is absolutely hilarious since almost the entire length of this industrial corridor essentially became a miles-long brownfield.

Most of us can't even remember the location, much less the existence of this train station.

I'll give you a hint.  Something else now sits on that site:

PNC Firstside
You may be asking yourself, "Okay, so PNC Firstside sits on the site of the former B&O Railroad Station at the corner of Grant Street and First Avenue.  What happened to the rail infrastructure, the right-of-way that infrastructure occupied?"

Funny you should mention that.  The right-of-way you're wondering about was explained, rather, extolled by Dr. Vannevar Bush just the other day.

Much of it is now part of the approximately first 19 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage.

The truth about Pittsburgh (and Southwestern Pennsylvania) is we were always at our best when we could get anyone who wanted to work from where they lived to where they worked.  

Our riverfronts may, in fact, look substantially better than they did just 30 years ago.  But the question I posed the other day, and that we need to look seriously at as we come of age and take our turn at managing and directing the use of public assets (or assets that can become public if we acquire them) is this:

"Is it the highest and best use of this particular class of public assets?"  Or, more practically, "is it the most productive use of those assets?"

"Does enhanced and expanded public access to our waterways lead to a diversity of economic development that the masses can feel, or does it just look nicer?"

"Would the fate of McKeesport, Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Glenwood and Hazelwood be better served with a commuter rail line?"  

Perhaps we should pose that question to Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.  

Or, more timely still, the consortium of foundations, non-profits and the NGO known as RIDC what commuter rail on that right-of-way may or may not do to enhance their billion-dollar project in Hazelwood along the river.  

Although, a transit rail connection from Downtown through Hazelwood to the Waterfront in Homestead might be more connective of our recent economic investments in the area.  

But that's really my point.  Our elected officials make choices, many times decades in the past that dictate the current course of affairs.

And it's also the message of this post.  

Kudos to Pittsburghers for Public Transit, its organizer(s) and supporters for remaining dedicated to the proposition that transit is an economic imperative for all.

I'm glad that an organization like the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group is bringing their intellectual firepower to bear on this issue as well.

The reality is, in all honesty, that the transit system we're fighting and working to build will either be a benefit to or detriment to our children.  And to their children.

That's the reality of major public infrastructure.  It usually takes a REALLY long time.  It took 23 years from the time that "prominent" East End residents and local officials began pushing the idea of an expressway from Churchill to Campbell's Run to the ribbon-cutting of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.

This is something we have to keep in mind as we look at today's asset portfolio and decide which pieces we keep, and which pieces we dispose of.  

Army General George S. Patton said once during World War II, when asked whether or not he intended to pull back from his current position and regroup, "I don't like paying for the same real estate twice, Freddy."

Keep his words in mind.  Because it is extremely difficult to get back that which we give away.

So the next time someone tells you that we ought to remove public infrastructure because we're not now using it and essentially "build a park", ask them, "Will this park get me to a job I can actually raise my family with?  Will it get my children to school?  Will it get my client(s) to and from the airport?  Will it service my (or my kids') institution of higher learning or major medical institution?"

I said the other day that my goal was to bike the Great Allegheny Passage.  

Still true.  

But I also realize that the investments that this city, county and region must make if it is to remain competitive in the global market for attracting livable-wage and high-wage jobs, we must be able to move people efficiently from home to job market, regardless of where home is or where that job market is located.

A more regional transit vision will require nothing less from us.


  1. On that map you designed, I see the rails headed in many directions. So far, so good. What I do not see necessarily are those rails going to a succession of strategically advantageous points -- colleges and universities, major employers and attractions. It's connecting that final dot which might make these dusty old photos of locomotives exciting.

    Anything that involves the B&O Railroad ought to have some marketing appeal.

  2. Bram --

    That map was a graphic representation of past rail connectivity.

    The rail lines remain (well, most of them)

    And I think that a modern version must, in fact, connect contemporary assets and locations to be truly useful, in addition to looking ahead to see what will be good in the future.

  3. Turkey OpportunitiesFebruary 11, 2013 at 11:27 AM


    Not a bad post, but you have to remember that to some extent, the commuter service is what got us into this mess in the first place. Commuter service reduced trip times and extended the distance out that we could go before even the automobile. Interurban streetcars and commuter rail gave us the ability to grow out and expand, which is a good thing and certainly made us productive. Some of that expansion was good (at one point, East Liberty was a stop on a commuter line), but commuter rail can be a vehicle for sprawl.

    Look at Washington, DC. VRE service goes all the way to Fredricksburg- 50 miles south of the capital. It was a rural hamlet but is now one of the fastest growing areas in the state. The availability of direct train service all the way into Arlington and Washington means that people are more comfortable buying all the way out there. And with commuter rail, more often than not, you still need a car to get around. So we're talking about more roads, more cars, and more greenfield development out in the hinterlands.

    If I'm willing to stomach a 40 minute trip in each direction that I now get from driving, and a stop where I live now could reduce my travel time to 20 minutes, I may decide to move a 20 minute drive away from the station. So I'm now even further out than I was. Why should we incentivize sprawl through giving people living in the boonies a straight shot into town?

    Compare commuter rail to a system that works on short distances to get people around within the city. Something like the old Ultraviolet loop. Or the Hazelwood- Oakland- Lawrenceville line. These are services with 10-15 minute headways that are reliable and could be used in place of a car for all of your needs. Combine a few services like this with real-time tracking information, well-maintained stops, and baby, you got a stew goin'!

  4. Let's Go the future!!!

  5. I agree with @Turkey Opportunities. In gerneral getting people to use other forms of transportation aside from cars is good. However, the bigger issue for Pittsburgh is the lack of intra-city (and immidiate suburbs) connectivity.

    That should come first. Why spend the scarce capital on infrastructure for a group who are (at the risk of generalizing) not known to be transit friendly and are likely to decry any transit investment as "socialist centralized planning" or some such non-sense?

    Why not instead spend that capital where you will gain the most use/acceptance?

    Many of those ROW's on your map are either unused or underused, and could be easily integrated into a more extended mass transit system that would benefit those who are more willing to pay for and use such an expanded system.

  6. Shawn - Yes, it does have to be truly regional, and this accomplishes that. But I'm eager to see illustrated how the rail lines comport with those key assets, or if we'll have to string out a considerable hub-and-spoke operation to get anywhere interesting. I'm sure that's in the next steps.

    Anon 1:24 - You're getting at why I think we have to "reinvent the wheel" and design a rail-compatible transportation technology which suits all our needs... and I'm nursing a hunch that modern rail cars aka trolleys are the way to go. Fuel efficient, minimally invasive to the built environment, and benevolently traffic-calming.

  7. get back to work Shawn, quit having your boss spend $$ on stupid stuff like gunshot detection devices.

  8. Anon 6:35PM

    You're absolutely right. We should continue to simply wait for terrified citizens to maybe call 9-1-1 and give the dispatcher their best "guess" as to where the gunshot(s) came from.

  9. I have said for the past five years that commuter rail is absolutely feasable here in western pa. If the AVR ever gets its alle-kiski commuter rail operations off the ground, it could very easily branch off up through the butler valley (along tracks it currently leases from the CSX and B&P). I can invision stations at Etna, Shaler(across from the Giant Eagle), Lower Hampton/Allison Park (Duncan Ave&Rt8) Upper Hampton (Wildwood Road), Richland (Rt910), Mars (Rt228), Evans City (Behind the 7-11 at Rt68 and 528), and Harmony/Zelie. And if you follow the line using google maps, there is plenty of space for park and ride lots near these locatons. Just 2 cents from an anon.