No buses Downtown, not really

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CONGESTION—Riders from the city’s East End clog Smithfield Street as they exit one of Port Authority’s P1 express buses, which though twice the size of regular buses are full at rush hour.(Photo by J.L. Martello.)

 

Fifty years ago, the powers that be decided it would be great to turn East Liberty, then the fourth largest business district in the state, into a walking mall by removing all the cars and buses. The result was Penn Circle, which diverted all traffic around the central business district and made no provisions for parking, and also cut off access to the neighborhood from Highland Avenue and Centre Avenue.

So a thriving business district that was also a transportation hub from where people could take buses or trolleys to any other part of the city and beyond turned into a ghost town almost overnight.

Despite being aware of its history, Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Peduto, who has represented District 8–which includes East Liberty–on city council since 2001, has joined County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in endorsing a plan that would remove all PAT buses from the core of Downtown Pittsburgh.

 

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LEFT OFF—That’s where Lori Gillespie of the Hill District said she and her son would be if buses are restricted from the Pittsburgh’s downtown core a one new plan envisions. (Photo by J.L. Martello.)

But this, Peduto said, is entirely different.

“This is the opposite of that,” he said. “That was a highway system jammed into a neighborhood.  The current system (of PAT buses coming into Downtown) makes no sense. All the routes disconnect rather than connect, and at rush hour you end up with almost constant gridlock. But no one is talking about getting rid of buses downtown.”

Scrawling a quick map of Downtown on the back of a council agenda, Peduto said there had only been a single meeting on the idea and it was brief, but he sees a new system as a loop.

“Right now, people coming from the North get dumped on Liberty and the bus goes back out,” he said. “Same thing from the South and West, they loop around two streets and out. That’s insane.”

The way he envisions it, all buses would come into town and loop around Downtown, so people would not have to walk several blocks to get to, say, the City-County Building.

“Maybe you use Fort Duquesne Boulevard instead of Liberty Avenue, but it would be all right-hand turns,” he said. “Ride the loop!”

However, with 2,600 bus trips per day entering Downtown, it would be more like ride the stall. And shorter loops, another option being explored, would mean even longer walks for some pedestrians. Fitzgerald has conceded that.

“Downtown Pittsburgh is not going to be a door-to-door operation,” he said.

The Port Authority actually contracted to study the idea of reducing buses in Downtown more than a year ago, but never began because key advisory committee including transit riders, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Downtown Neighborhood Association was never empanelled.

The plan is, therefore on hold. But even if it weren’t, Fitzgerald said people would be involved.  He also admitted the idea was being pushed by businesses that don’t want crowds of people blocking the sidewalks in front of their new buildings, but later added that it had broad support over a “cross-section of people.”

But with the bulk of PAT riders being African-Americans, some, like Vernard Alexander commenting on state Rep. Ed Gainey’s Facebook page, are not pleased.

“We’re ok to spend money in your stores but not good enough to stand in front of them,” he wrote.

Commenter Renee Demus had a similar thought.

“This makes no sense at all and a lot of people rely on these services,” she wrote. “I feel that Pittsburgh is the number 1 city on discrimination.”

Fitzgerald and Peduto both said this was a very preliminary step, and that many meetings would follow and would make ample provisions for public input.

“People are getting the wrong idea about this, that it’s happening right away and they’ll have no input,” Fitzgerald said.

“There will be lots of meetings. This was one. People will have their say,” said Peduto.

NAACP Pittsburgh Unit President and Port Authority Board Member Connie Parker said she plans on speaking with Fitzgerald about alternatives to “moving young Black men out” and the idea of limiting buses to the city’s perimeter.

“I remember East Liberty too,” she said. “I don’t know when we’ll see the first actual proposal, but it should be soon, now that the public has questions.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

 

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