Pittsburgh Regional Transit hopes it will have other uses for them, but the agency is buying three small passenger vans that can be used as shuttles if problems persist with the Monongahela Incline.

The authority’s board of directors Friday approved buying three Ford Transit Mobility Vans at a cost of $257,400. The authority will buy the vans through a joint purchase agreement with the state Department of General Services.

The agency uses similar vans to transport groups of bus drivers in training to maintenance garages for field practice, but it has never used then to transport riders. It is buying the additional vans for potential use between Mount Washington and Station Square because the narrow streets on Mount Washington are difficult for regular buses to navigate during closures of the incline.

The 154-year-old funicular has been closed since March 5, when the cars refused to leave stations because the brake resister and the motor controller failed. That’s the latest in a series of closures that have occurred since contractors completed an $8.1 million project last March to upgrade the incline’s mechanical system and restore the stations to their original look in 1870.

During the closures, the agency has been running shuttle buses to transport riders, but the service has been difficult using regular buses. Through an agreement with Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the agency will try the new vans as soon as they are available, likely a couple of weeks.

“We have to get creative,” CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said after the meeting. “We can get there faster in the vans.”

The new vans will have wheelchair lifts on the side so the system remains ADA compliant. The agency is building a schedule for the vans to run about every 15 minutes and will include stops in the Shiloh Street shopping area.

Merchants on Mount Washington have been upset about the frequent closures of the incline because it is a popular tourist attraction that draws thousands to the neighborhood during warm weather. Kelleman said the agency is doing what it can to provide alternate methods to get to and from to the area, which includes observation platforms with spectacular views of Downtown Pittsburgh and its surroundings.

The agency has completed repairs to the incline, but officials are reluctant to open it again until they can determine why the parts failed. It is negotiating an agreement with a national consultant to review the system and how the agency operates it in an effort to prevent future closures.

“If we are doing things right, they should validate that,” Kelleman told the board. “If we are doing things wrong, they should show us what to do to correct that.”

The system could reopen before that review is completed if the consultant determines the incline is not at risk of another closure.

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.