Pittsburgh Regional Transit expects to award the first construction contract for Downtown Pittsburgh work on the Bus Rapid Transit project next week and begin work in late spring.

The board’s performance oversight committee Thursday recommended approval of a $27.9 million contract with Independence Excavating Inc. The full board will vote on the contract next Friday.

That work will involve building five new stations in the Downtown area and establishing exclusive bus lanes on Fifth, Liberty and Sixth avenues for the system designed to improve service between the Golden Triangle and Oakland. The agency expects to take bids for the second part of the project in the Uptown and Oakland neighborhoods in the fall and begin work there by the end of the year.

Michelle Zmijanac, who chairs the committee, said she was happy to see the long-awaited project moving forward

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I’m excited to see this.”

The $291 million project should be finished by 2025, but the Downtown portion will open when it is finished after about 17 months of construction.

Greg O’Hare, who oversees capital projects for the agency, called this a “very exciting milestone” for the project. The agency received only one bid for the work after getting no bids in its first attempt last fall, but officials attributed that to the high volume of construction projects in the area and the complications that come with working in the Downtown area.

“It’s quite a complex project, and there’s a lot of work going on, especially at the airport,” said Chief Development Officer David Huffaker. The bid was about $2 million higher than expected, but Huffaker said the agency didn’t make any changes in the scope of work for the first phase of the project.

So far, the project hasn’t received final approval of $150 million in Federal Transit Administration grants, which must be in place before the agency can give contractors the notice to proceed with work. Huffaker said that federal officials have told him the grant will be approved soon and gave the agency the green light to award the contract.

Work typically starts about six weeks after a contract is awarded.

Huffaker said he doesn’t expect the project will cause much disruption for buses that use Downtown now. The agency also is in the process of studying how to rearrange more than 40 routes that use Downtown streets so there is better traffic flow.

The BRT will establish bus-only lanes between Oakland and Downtown, inbound on Fifth Avenue and outbound on Forbes Avenue. Stations in the Downtown area will be built at Fifth and Ross Street, Fifth and William Penn Place, Fifth and Market Square, the Wood Street T Station on Liberty Avenue and Steel Plaza at Sixth Avenue and Grant Street.

The goal is to create a system with a more reliable schedule for the buses that use it. Right now, buses bunch together during rush-hour traffic, then there are gaps before the next buses arrive.

“The Downtown-Uptown-Oakland Bus Rapid Transit project will be transformative to our city and our region by improving transit access and amenities throughout a vital corridor,” said CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said in a news release.

As part of the Bus Rapid Transit project, another committee also recommended approval of changes to four other bus routes in Oakland. The 71A, C and D and the 61D will have their routes shortened to end at Craft Avenue in Oakland beginning in the fall, reducing the number of buses heading into the Downtown area.

The agency deferred a decision to have the P3 route begin in Wilkinsburg instead of Swissvale, after receiving complaints from riders. That change wasn’t expected until 2025, so the agency will wait to see if it is necessary.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.