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May 3, 2012

Input sought on bus rapid transit system proposals

A community initiative to build a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Pittsburgh is seeking public input on preferred system route options.

BRT systems augment — rather than replace — regular bus service to provide a flexible, faster, more efficient service in high-demand neighborhoods by combining specialized vehicles on dedicated roads or bus lanes with intelligent transportation system elements such as priority traffic signaling, real-time schedule information and pre-boarding fare options, to improve urban mobility and, eventually, spawn economic development.

More than 20 U.S. cities have BRT systems in operation with another 40 cities planning such systems.

A study was commissioned last August by Sustainable Pittsburgh and other community groups and institutions, including Pitt and UPMC, on developing a BRT system in the Downtown-Oakland corridor, with potential extensions to East End neighborhoods.

At a public forum April 25 on the Carnegie Mellon campus, officials from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the planning agency conducting the study, laid out alternatives they are proposing for the Forbes Avenue-Fifth Avenue corridor between Craft and Bellefield avenues through Oakland.

(The firm is holding additional public meetings in those areas also affected by BRT system planning: Uptown, the Hill District, Shadyside-East Liberty and Squirrel Hill. For a schedule, and other information, visit Additional public forums will be scheduled in the fall.)

Although the Port Authority of Allegheny County is a sponsor of the BRT initiative and likely will make route and service changes necessary to connect neighborhoods to the system, it is not a Port Authority project per se, said Alan Danaher, senior supervising engineer at Parsons Brinckerhoff. That is because the project will rely substantially on grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration, potentially supported by local, state, institutional and private community-development sources.

“We’re looking at a whole palette of funding sources,” Danaher said. One of the benefits of implementing a BRT system is that it can be done incrementally over time as capital funding becomes available, he noted.

No cost analysis has been undertaken as yet, pending buy-in from local communities on which of the alternative routes should be pursued, Danaher said.

In addition to cost-analysis studies, he said the consultants expect to do environmental impact and land-use studies, which are required when applying for federal funding, after a public consensus on routes is reached. The aim is to wrap up the study by early next year, Danaher said.

Darryl Phillips, lead traffic engineer at Parsons Brinckerhoff, laid out a number of alternatives for the Forbes-Fifth corridor in Oakland.

The Port Authority’s 61 and 71 bus series, which travel through Oakland, currently account for an average of 46,000 weekday rides, or 20 percent of the Allegheny County transit ridership, Phillips noted. Those buses often are overcrowded, off-schedule and, slowed by numerous stops and traffic signals, inconvenient for travelers going directly between Oakland and Downtown, he noted.

Downtown would be the starting point of the BRT system, as the transit hub of the region and the major transfer point, particularly for those coming to Oakland from the north, south and west, he noted.

Parsons Brinckerhoff’s proposed alternatives take essential or desired elements of an overall transit plan — sidewalks, on-street parking, bike lanes, car lanes and dedicated bus lanes — and reconfigure them in various combinations.

“These concepts are a starting point; they are by no means a final alternative,” Phillips said, adding that his firm has no preference among the proposals and also is open to additional proposals from the public.

“In Oakland, the plan would be to use Fifth Avenue or Forbes Avenue or a combination of both,” Phillips said.

Maintaining the on-street parking supply in the heavily commercial area is a priority, as is evaluating the feasibility of additional dedicated bus lanes.

Fifth Avenue going through Oakland presents a challenge in that it is wider roughly between Darragh Street and Bellefield Avenue than on sections west of Darragh, Phillips noted.

In that stretch, there currently are three vehicular (non-bus) lanes, a parking lane and the contra-traffic dedicated bus lane, flanked on both sides by sidewalks. One alternative for Fifth is to create a second dedicated inbound bus lane and a new dedicated inbound bike lane, while maintaining the three car lanes and eliminating the parking lane.

A variation of that option would be to maintain the parking lane while restricting car traffic to two inbound lanes.

In both options, the bike lane would not be viable for travel west of Darragh where Fifth Avenue narrows.

Other options for Fifth Avenue (with repercussions for Forbes Avenue covered below) include:

Convert Fifth Avenue into a two-way street, eliminate the contra-flow bus lane and run both inbound and outbound BRT vehicles on dedicated lanes on Forbes Avenue, which also would be converted to two-way traffic.

Build a two-lane tunnel under Fifth Avenue beginning either at Craft Avenue or closer to Downtown with ground-level access at several stops to accommodate both inbound and outbound buses, which likely is the most expensive option.

There also are options proposed for the four-lane Forbes Avenue, Phillips said, depending on the Fifth Avenue configuration.

“Forbes Avenue has a very different character in many ways from Fifth Avenue,” he said. “It is narrower than Fifth, and has much more lively retail and pedestrian activity. In most of these options, we tried to maintain on-street parking in order to serve the businesses.”

Forbes Avenue alternatives include:

If both inbound and outbound BRT bus lanes are placed on Fifth Avenue, reconfigure Forbes to accommodate three car lanes and either a bike lane or a parking lane, or two car lanes, a parking lane and a bike lane.

Add a contra-flow bus lane on Forbes Avenue, limit outbound vehicular traffic (including outbound buses) to two lanes, while adding a bike lane and eliminating the parking lane.

“It might be possible to refine this option, to put in a parking lane and not have a bicycle lane,” but that would require reducing the recently constructed sidewalk curb extensions along Forbes, Phillips said.

Add a contra-flow bus lane on Forbes Avenue, convert the outbound curb lane, currently available to cars, into a dedicated bus lane and convert Forbes to a two-way street with two lanes for vehicular traffic, and no bike lane or parking lane. Most inbound vehicular traffic then would be diverted to Fifth Avenue, which no longer would have a dedicated bus lane.

Convert Forbes into a two-way street, maintain the outbound curb bus lane, add a bike lane and eliminate parking. Under this scenario, Fifth Avenue also would be converted to two ways (one outbound lane, two inbound), while converting one lane for dedicated inbound bus service and maintaining a parking lane.

Comments on these alternatives are welcome at, officials said.

Expanding the BRT system east from Oakland would require some reconfiguration, depending on the alternatives, Phillips noted, because at some point the BRT route would have to split to accommodate Shadyside-East Liberty and Squirrel Hill.

If all BRT buses from Downtown go through Oakland on Fifth Avenue, one possibility is a transition at Bellefield Avenue, making South Bellefield two-way for buses coming up Fifth and heading to Squirrel Hill and those coming from Squirrel Hill on Forbes Avenue and heading toward Fifth, Phillips explained.

Similarly, if all BRT buses are using Forbes Avenue, a two-way South Bellefield could connect buses coming to and from Shadyside.

The other options for that transition — Baum Boulevard, Dithridge Street, Craig Street and Morewood Avenue — are less attractive either because of heavy commercial activity or because they are too narrow to accommodate bus turns without difficulty, Phillips said.

In any case, several system-wide connectivity issues remain to be resolved with local community input, he said.

—Peter Hart

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