Port Authority considers Northside route changes

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Diane King of Fineview relies on Port Authority buses to travel around the city. So do Brenda Peterson of East Allegheny and Diane Jordan of Fineview.

Other Northside residents, including Peter McClellan of Troy Hill, have other ways to get around but use buses to avoid parking hassles.

In upcoming months the way people like King, Peterson, Jordan and McClellan use Pittsburgh’s bus system will change when the Port Authority restructures bus routes in an effort to make them more efficient, to run more frequently and at regular intervals.

Some of the plans being considered would cut several routes on the Northside.

In addition to route restructuring, the Port Authority plans on raising fares January 1, 2010. Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said that the increase would be no more than a quarter, though it could be less.

He said that the Port Authority planned to install new fare collection equipment in all its buses over the summer to allow for the use of electronic smart cards. With the smart cards, riders could pre-pay fares onto a permanent card. 

Ritchie said that because of the new equipment, the Port Authority would be examining their current fare structure and considering changing it, but that he did not yet have any details.

The fare increase, new fare collection equipment installation and route restructuring will all happen simultaneously, Ritchie said.

“There’s a lot of new things we’re not used to here in Pittsburgh,” he said.

The Port Authority hired Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc. to evaluate all of its routes and suggest improvements. The evaluations, available online at www.tdp.portauthority.org, showed that many routes offered redundant services with confusing variations and strange running intervals.

The Port Authority developed three concept plans to address the problems and aim for more efficient, productive service. Ritchie said that in most cases service will be extended and regularized through off-peak times so that shift workers can also ride the bus.

Jordan, who lives on top of a hill, said that after the service cuts in 2007 she has had to walk many places rather than ride the bus, especially if she needs to run out and get something for one of her three children.

“It’s so hard already,” Jordan said, “I come and go every other second.”

According to Ritchie, the Port Authority will construct a more concrete plan soon. In the meantime, its three concept plans allow riders to see what sort of changes it might make.

Concept one focuses on streamlining existing service, improving routing through downtown and providing more frequent service. Under this plan new park and ride lots and transit centers — focal points for multiple bus routes — with better amenities would be built.

“It wouldn’t be just your standard corner bus shelter,” Ritchie said.

He said that the new transit centers require money the Port Authority currently does not have, but if the community wants the centers, the Port Authority will take steps to acquire the necessary funds.

Concept two contains all the features of concept one, with a few extras. One of them is a “Rapid Bus,” which would run more frequently than normal buses and stop less often. Bus routes like the 61 and 71 series would be upgraded to Rapid Bus branding. 

Under this plan the Port Authority would develop “transit emphasis corridors” in which buses would have precedent over other traffic in order to speed service.

The Port Authority would build most of the transit emphasis corridors on the East End, Ritchie said. On those roads buses might have the ability to change stop lights so they can move more quickly through congested areas.

According to both concept one and concept two, several Northside routes would be cut, including the 6D, 13C, 13F and 18C. The 6C would replace service provided by the 6D in both concepts.

On other routes, like the 6A, 11C, 11D, 16A, 16B and 16F, service would be cut along certain roads only.

Under concept one, the 11E would be combined the 16F. The 18B and 17B would also be combined in both concepts. More detailed reports on the proposed changes of each route can be found at the Transit Development Plan’s Web site.

Ritchie said that as of the end of June, the Port Authority planned to combine bits and pieces of the first two concepts based on public feedback, but did not want to comment on specifics until all public feedback has been compiled.

The third concept plan, which uses a grid structure similar to that of many other cities, would not work well with Western Pennsylvania’s geography, Ritchie said, and the Port Authority is no longer considering it an option. 

 “We didn’t want to sweep it under the rug though,” he said.

King expressed worry over the changes, but said she wouldn’t object as long as service was not cut. She said the changes “sound great,” but also said that with good change could come some bad ones.

“Hopefully if it has to be it’ll be fair for everyone and not just on us little people,” King said. “As long as it’s give and take.”

Jordan echoed King’s fears. “That’s going to cause chaos,” she said.

Nelson/Nygaard looked at the individual productivity of each bus route compared to the average, as well as how many passengers each route served per trip, how many trips each route made, how direct the route was compared to travel by car, how many variations the route used, how many stops per mile the route used and whether or not other routes offered the same or similar service.

“We wanted to provide the information but we wanted to avoid ranking because it implies we’ve already made up our minds,” Ritchie said about the rating system Nelson/Nygaard used. “Some places have a route that might not be productive, but it might be the only route.”

Some bus routes have upwards of a dozen variations in service, depending on the time of day and direction, which confuses people because they do not know where exactly the bus is heading, Ritchie said.

Many buses also stop frequently, slowing down service. Ritchie said that slow service might turn away potential riders, and that the Port Authority planned to adopt a system to eliminate or consolidate stops in order to shorten trip times.

“We won’t just [eliminate stops] willy-nilly,” he said. “It’s reasonable to ask people to walk x number of feet to a stop.”

Another oddity of the Allegheny County public transportation system is the way bus and light rail routes are named with a mix of letters and numbers. Ritchie said this was unusual for public transportation in large cities, but that “We’re used to it.”  

According to Ritchie and the Transit Development Plan, the Port Authority is thinking about renaming T routes based on color. For example, the Library route would be renamed the Green Line.

Ritchie said the Port Authority hoped for “overwhelming guidance” from the public on how to rename bus routes, but that there are no concrete plans yet. 

He added, “I think people are anxious about the change, but excited about the possibility of something that makes sense.”

The Port Authority held two open houses, one Downtown and one on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, and had an online feedback forum as well as a feedback hotline to get people involved in the restructuring process and to find out which of the three concepts best met their needs.

Ritchie said that once people see that the Port Authority is developing a system for restructuring, they are okay with the changes, as long it isn’t their stop or their route being cut.

“This is all about trade-offs,” Ritchie said. “People are fearful about their routes, but we’re not going to cut service.” He added that the trade off for route consolidation would be more frequent and more dependable service.

Rather than cutting unproductive but essential routes, Ritchie said the Port Authority would look at adjusting the route in some way to increase productivity while keeping needed service in place.

The two viable concept plans focus on how to better route buses through Downtown, and the Port Authority has created three possible alternatives. In all three, buses will follow seven circular routes based around the Wood Street Station. 

Although McClellan said he does not think the changes will affect him, he said it will be more expensive to travel Downtown if the Port Authority reroutes radial bus routes to transit centers, because riders would need transfers, which cost an extra 50 cents.

Ritchie said that the Port Authority wants to make bus service through Downtown faster, and that it is considering several dedicated bus lanes on streets like Liberty Avenue. It will consider which plan works best not only for riders, but for people who live and work Downtown as well.

“The overall idea of the plan is to make it easier to use the system,” Ritchie said.

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