Can federal dollars narrow transportation gaps?
By Editorial Board
It’s rarely discussed by local leaders and stakeholders, but transportation issues are one of the biggest hindrances to residents living West of Pittsburgh.
Surveys conducted in McKees Rocks and Stowe by several community organizations in 2016 found transportation was the number one concern voiced by respondents. Ahead, that is, of poverty, hunger, education and violence.
There’s nothing to indicate the situation has since improved.
Anyone living in these small towns without their own vehicle has limited options for working, shopping or recreation without an out-of-the-way connection in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Consequently, many resort to unregulated “jitney” services, while others miss out altogether on important opportunities.
Perhaps then the flood of federal infrastructure dollars will bring about the needed change as they flow out from the Capital Beltway in the trillions?
That depends on how local leaders and stakeholders respond and what they prioritize.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November, Port Authority officials rattled off a list of projects they hoped to expedite through the flow of federal monies, none of which – unsurprisingly – were based in the West.
In recent weeks, the transportation authority has begun a $2.5 million makeover of the Negley Station in East Liberty, shored up funding for a new transit center in Wilkinsburg and started scouring for more than $50 million to revamp the South Hills Junction station.
These projects will no doubt meet important needs for people in Pittsburgh’s southern and eastern flanks, but they fit a common pattern of neglect and disinvestment on this side of the Ohio River.
In an ambitious 25-year-plan recently unveiled for the region, Port Authority recognizes the transportation needs in the western suburbs, and has generated some promising proposals.
In the language of the Nextransit plan: “The need for a faster and more efficient transit link between Downtown, western municipalities, and the airport has been apparent for quite some time, and has been studied several times over the past few decades.”
The solution offered is to extend the West Busway line from its current terminus in Sheraden to Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle, and from Carnegie out toward Robinson in the other direction.
The estimated cost for this is around $300 million and the timeframe outlined is 6-15 years.
Ultimately, the money has not yet been secured and the project may never get off the ground.
If it does, it will certainly join up some missing links, but it will still leave many gaps.
Crucially, a Sheraden mother seeking to shop for groceries in the McKees Rocks plaza or a young adult in Stowe looking to learn a trade across the river at the Manchester Bidwell Center will in each case need to transfer Downtown to get to their destination if riding by public transport. Is it worth it? Weighed against the other pressures in 21st-Century life, they may answer no.
But as we emerge cautiously from what we can hope is the last gasp of the coronavirus and begin to imagine together a clean, equitable and prosperous future, perhaps we’re at a place to demand change.
Nothing will change, though, unless local and state officials fight to ensure the West gets its fair share of funds, and then work to use them smartly and responsibly.
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