More than 10 years of planning, including a complete revision of the original concept, culminate this week with the start of construction for the Bus Rapid Transit system between Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh.
But that extended process doesn’t mean Pittsburgh Regional Transit has satisfied all of the concerns about the service changes that will come with the $291 million project to improve connections between two of the state’s largest economic centers.
The continuing angst centers on the agency’s plan to change four bus routes — 61D and 71 A, C and D — on Oct. 1 so they end in Oakland rather than continuing into Downtown. The changes begin with the three-times-a-year route changes under the agency’s union contract with operators, even though that’s almost three weeks after the start of construction.
The agency says the moves will eliminate redundant service and it is taking steps to increase trips on other routes in the same corridor to avoid crowding. Without the changes, which will eliminate more than 400 hours of service each week on those four routes, acting Chief Development Officer Amy Silbermann said the agency was facing a cut in service due to the continuing shortage of bus drivers.
Critics counter that the changes will hit many of the system’s poorest riders who face the prospect of paying double fares if they are using cash and have to transfer in Oakland to reach Downtown.
The agency will host an online meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to explain the changes and answer questions. Advance registration is required on the agency’s website.
Long time coming
Discussion about the BRT project began around 2010, and formal planning for exclusive bus lanes between Oakland and Downtown started about five years later. It hasn’t been an easy trip to reach the start of construction.
Initial plans would have called for almost all buses that now pass through Oakland on their way to Downtown to end their routes in Oakland and have all riders transfer to get Downtown. That caused an uproar because it would have eliminated direct Downtown service for Monongahela Valley riders and resulted in less suburban service to those communities to provide staffing for BRT.
In early 2018, new CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman was tasked with revising those plans to maintain suburban service and have those routes share the exclusive BRT lanes rather than have riders transfer.
Silbermann and PRT spokesman Adam Brandolph stressed that changing the four routes that will end in Oakland beginning next month has been openly discussed as part of the plans since 2019. The changes will reduce what Silbermann called “an overabundance of service” in that area that contributes to service problems because buses bunch together during rush-hour traffic, something that should be eliminated by BRT.
“Really, the thing that solidified that [decision to stop four routes in Oakland] is the operator shortage,” she said. “If we had not done these changes, we would have had to cut service. It’s the right thing to do given our shortages elsewhere.”
The 61D Murray, 71A Negley, 71C Point Breeze and 71D Hamilton all will have “Short” added to their names and end their routes at Robinson Street in Oakland. The 61D will return via Forbes Avenue while the 71s all use the contraflow bus lane on Fifth Avenue.
Silbermann said extensive staff surveys of riders have found “very few” riders don’t have alternative service that provides a direct ride Downtown without transferring. Still, the agency says it is pulling out all the stops to make sure riders are aware of the changes, including signs at most bus stops, plans to deploy staff at stops when the changes begin to help riders who aren’t aware of the changes and Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions for riders.
“We’d like to think we’ve had a lot of outreach, but there are always people who are not connected,” Brandolph said. “Any kind of changes, there is going to be a challenge. Part of that is why we are having this meeting, so we can answer questions people have about how they can get where they need to go.
“It’s not going to be much of a change for most people. For a few, it will be a different way of going to work or school and connecting with the world.”
Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, completely disagrees and said riders she has talked with consider the changes “harmful, catastrophic even.” She believes the agency has ignored more than 600 negative comments from riders against the changes.
“I think it is, frankly, odd that you wouldn’t want to maximize the amount of buses running through that corridor,” she said. “Telling people they can just take a different bus doesn’t feel like an adequate solution.
“There’s no remedy they have offered for access to Uptown [the next neighborhood after Oakland]. It plays out as a loss of service.”
PRT says it is using some of the service hours gained from the short routes to increase rush-hour trips on the 82 Lincoln and 87 Friendship, which serve some of the same areas. Other hours will be added to the P7 that originates in McKeesport and to cover the long detour around the closed Charles Anderson Bridge in Schenley Park.
The start of BRT construction in the Downtown area also will result in route changes beginning Wednesday.
When Independence Excavating Inc. begins moving sewer lines on Fifth Avenue near Triangle Park, across from the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel, traffic will be reduced from two lanes toward Fifth Avenue Place and one away from it to one lane toward the office building. As a result, a bunch of buses in the Downtown area will have to be rerouted for about 30 days, including the eight that follow the BRT route through Oakland.
“There’s always something under construction in Downtown,” said Silbermann, who said she is “very excited” for the start of BRT work. “We just happen to be the ones doing the work this time.”
For about 2½ weeks, the routes that will end in Oakland next month will be on the detour list, along with the four primary University Line routes: 61A, B and C and 71B. Instead of coming in on Sixth Avenue to Liberty Avenue and out on Fifth, they will reverse direction, coming in on Fifth and going out on Liberty to Sixth.
Another 16 routes that usually use that part of Fifth Avenue also will have their routes and stops changed during construction. For changes, go to rideprt.org/detours/.