Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Seeing the Future By Looking at the Past

Once upon a time, trolley tracks could be found all over the city of Pittsburgh. Many short lines ran into neighboring counties. Riding the trolley, or streetcar (since the tracks mostly ran along the paved roads rather than a typical railroad right of way), was a part of everyday life for many commuters. Over the course of time, buses began to displace streetcars as the primary method of mass transit. By the 1970s, the once commonplace streetcar lines had dwindled to a few routes that ran between downtown Pittsburgh and a few neighborhoods in the South Hills of Allegheny County. The cars that remained in use were the very popular -- and now fondly remembered -- PCC cars that dated back to the 1930s. No plans to revitalized Pittsburgh's rail system had gotten very far. Local commuter rail service seemed to be doomed.

Then, in the late 1970s, the city decided to go ahead and not only convert the existing trolley lines into a newfangled light rail system, but also to rip up the streetcar tracks from the surface of the downtown streets and replace them with an actual underground subway. How did this come about? According to an old college professor of mine, President Jimmy Carter came to town and marveled that a major American city did not have a subway system. He was appalled and decided that the federal government was going to help make it happen. It was, of course, wasteful and unnecessary. For one thing, Pittsburgh has one of the smallest downtown areas of any big city in the country. The existing bus and streetcar routes on the surface were quite sufficient to move commuters between the space of a few blocks.

Another problem that had confounded planners in the past concerned the so-called "fourth river" running beneath the city's surface. Seemingly the stuff of which legends are made, this sibling to the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers is actually an aquifer called the Wisconsin Glacial Flow. The existence of a mysterious body of water of any kind underneath downtown prevented the construction of a subway for many years.

Reality never gets in the way of a federal mandate, however, so the new Light Rail Transit system (LRT) was constructed. Downtown Pittsburgh finally had its subway, and most of the former streetcar line south of the Monongahela River was moved off the streets and onto a traditional right of way. New light rail vehicles were purchased from Germany; the PCC cars continued to run on ever-decreasing portions of the line until September 1999. Within the last couple of years, the Port Authority has purchased new light rail cars. Light rail expansion has been discussed; a proposed addition to the existing LRT line would run to the North Shore of the Allegheny River via a tunnel to be dug underneath the bottom of the river, thus connecting more commuters with the new sports stadiums. That move would be just as stupid and wasteful as the construction of the stadiums was a few years ago.

Whither rail-based public transportation in Pittsburgh? While the current solutions to the Port Authority's fiscal woes involves throwing more money at the existing system regardless of the source of the funds, someone has an interesting suggestion in mind. Bob O'Connor, candidate for mayor of the city of Pittsburgh, has put forth a bold proposal: Why not run a streetcar line between downtown and the Oakland neighborhood, site of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University? In the long run, this could be a great idea. But there are a lot of bugs to be worked out. First, the cost of the new lines is estimated at $11 million per mile, totaling around $70 million. O'Connor says that funding will come from two sources: "private investors" (who, exactly?); and "federal transportation funds" (your tax dollars at work, AGAIN!). Nice plan; keep them nameless and faceless as long as possible. His opponents, William Peduto and Michael Lamb, both agree in theory with the streetcar proposal, but Peduto -- surprisingly for a Democrat -- is concerned about using federal funds that have already been earmarked for expressway projects.

Another problem concerns the kinds of streetcars that will be running. This is not an extension of LRT; this would be a completely new system whose streetcars would be no more compatible with the LRT tracks that would the buses. This would require new storage and maintenance facilities to be built, who knows where. Add to that possible expansion into other city neighborhoods, and we are looking at more than $70 million for the project. This does not even take into consideration the operating costs. And what about the source of funding again?

There is no way the cash-strapped city could pay for the project, in the short term at least: It has no money to pay for regular capital improvements this year and its poor credit rating is barring it from borrowing money until next year at the earliest.

Funding could be provided by developers owning land along the new transit line, perhaps through a self-imposed "improvement district" tax.

This is almost Orwellian. A self-imposed tax? Yes, that's going to go over well. Rail expansion of some kind in the city might work well in the long run, but the city has plenty of fiscal messes to clean up before they even think of starting something like this.

1 comment:

mobilone said...

Bob O'Connor is a classic example of why politicians have a lower credibility rating than used car salesmen...He doesn't really believe in anything himself..he's just out there running a bunch of micromanagement issues up the flagpole hoping to gather a vote here and there.