Every city has that transit fantasy: a proposal for transit along a certain corridor, or in a certain neighborhood, which goes back generations, has been the subject of numerous studies and proposals, but has yet to materialize. New York City has the Second Avenue Subway (though a short, first segment of it opened in 2017); Philadelphia, the Roosevelt Boulevard subway; Washington, D.C. has long wished for a Metro station in Georgetown; and San Francisco may one day get around to building a Geary subway. (I could go on).
In Pittsburgh, the Downtown-to-Oakland corridor has been the subject of successive transit proposals. In the 1910s, the Pittsburgh Plan proposed a traditional heavy rail subway. The ill-fated 1960s plan for Skybus—an automated rubber-tired system—included a line to serve Downtown and Oakland. Thirty years on, a 1990s study considered a “Spine Line,” extending the “T” light rail tunnels which had since been built Downtown, to serve Oakland. As any Pittsburgh transit rider will know well, none of these proposals were ever realized.
Bus Rapid Transit: What’s Happening
Last year, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) received a federal grant for Bus Rapid Transit between Downtown and Oakland. This comes at the same time the agency is developing NEXTransit, its 25-year plan for transit in Allegheny County. For the first time in a Pittsburgh-area transit proposal of this scale, there is no plan for grade-separated transit between Downtown and Oakland — the agency has assumed that BRT will accommodate demand for transit in this corridor for at least the next quarter-century.
This is unbelievably shortsighted. Pittsburgh clearly has ambitions of growth as a city as it continues its post-industrial “renaissance.” This growth is happening in Downtown and Oakland (perhaps particularly so in Oakland, which is the home of Pittsburgh’s two largest universities and several major hospitals). Grade-separated transit, like a subway, has a higher capacity than even the best bus rapid transit systems, and can carry far more people with less operational costs than buses.
None of this is to say there is anything expressly wrong with the BRT plan — it will be positive for transit in Pittsburgh. Despite being the busiest in the region, buses running between Downtown and Oakland today are forced to compete for space with private cars. The improved reliability that will come with dedicated bus lanes will encourage more people out of their cars and on to transit. Even if a subway were to be built here, the bus improvement projects taking place now are still worthwhile—buses from across the city should still converge on Oakland and should do so in dedicated lanes and at accessible, well-designed stops.
Why A Subway Is The Better Long-Term Choice
For the purposes of this, “the subway” will be along the lines of the 1993 proposal: a branch of the existing light rail tunnel from Steel Plaza, along (or near) 5th Avenue through Uptown, and along Forbes Avenue through Oakland. The main capacity benefit of a light rail subway compared to bus rapid transit — that light rail vehicles carry more passengers than buses — is obvious. These translate into cost savings for the Port Authority, particularly in operations, which were highlighted in the 1993 Spine Line study. Light rail comes with higher construction costs than bus rapid transit, but gives major savings on operations costs back to the agency. In 1993, PAAC estimated that light rail would cost between 4.3 and 6.6 million dollars less in annual maintenance compared to increased bus service. Free from traffic lights and congestion, fewer light rail vehicles are required to meet the same level of service currently provided by buses (and adding more service can cost less). While BRT can bring about of these benefits by speeding up buses, it’s difficult to compete with the reliability of grade-separated transit. On top of this, light rail services can be composed of 2 or 3 vehicles coupled together and driven by a single operator, transporting numbers of passengers who would otherwise require several buses.
These benefits will reach far beyond the Downtown–Oakland corridor. This is by far the busiest bus corridor in Pittsburgh, and as such consumes a tremendous amount of PAAC’s resources and vehicle-hours. A light rail line would release buses currently used in Downtown–Oakland service to strengthen service elsewhere. For example, spare buses could boost Pittsburgh’s weak circumferential transit, and promote a broader reorganization of the bus network, focused on connecting neighborhoods and intersecting faster light rail service to Downtown (the network today focuses almost exclusively on Downtown-and-back service). Bus frequency on several other key corridors could increase as well—allowing PAAC to realize some of the regional improvements proposed in NEXTransit—all while the total money spent by PAAC on bus operations remains neutral.
Beyond the transit planning implications, the real case for the subway is about the growth of Downtown, Oakland, and Pittsburgh as a whole. The 1993 study estimated that there were 29,000 workers in Oakland; by 2018, this had grown to 65,000, according to a report from PAAC, with over 56,000 within a quarter-mile of the BRT project (or a subway along the same route). Oakland is the heart of Pittsburgh’s healthcare and education industries, which are driving the city’s post-industrial economy. As employment in Oakland continues to grow—and there is little to suggest that it won’t—a subway will be able to better adapt to rising ridership (and for the reasons outlined above, will be able to do so with lower operational costs than buses).
So why isn’t a subway even getting looked at this time? Construction costs are clearly the biggest obstacle (which is exactly what was stated in the 1993 study). It is not a secret that transit construction costs in the United States are incredibly high, particularly for tunneled projects, which this would have to be. To be honest, comparable projects — other light rail tunnels in dense areas of US cities — do not inspire much confidence in Pittsburgh’s ability to construct a Downtown–Oakland tunnel at a bargain price. The two most similar projects — San Francisco’s Central Subway and LA’s Regional Connector — are expensive, at $618.5m per km (SF) and $556.5m per km (LA). These aren’t perfect comparisons, as costs for land in Pittsburgh will be less, and much of the Downtown–Oakland tunnel will not have to contend with an environment as dense as downtown LA or SF. It is fair to assume that the cost per km in Pittsburgh will be less, but not enough less to stop a Downtown–Oakland tunnel, between 4 and 5 km, from quickly approaching $2b in construction costs.
I suspect the total exclusion of a subway from consideration may also have a lot to do with the political scars of Pittsburgh’s last experience with subway construction. The 2012 North Shore Connector project — which extended the light rail from Downtown, across the Allegheny River, to the North Shore stadiums — fell victim to the cost inflation and timeline overruns that too frequently plague major infrastructure projects. The project was criticized before construction had even begun for having questionable value. Unless you park on the North Shore before heading to your job downtown, or are a regular at Steelers or Pirates games, it is hard to see what the Connector contributed to an improved Pittsburgh transit network. But a Downtown–Oakland line could not be more different! Downtown and Oakland are not just the two largest centers of employment in the city, these are—behind Center City Philadelphia—the second and third largest employment centers in Pennsylvania, respectively.
We Need Ambitious Transit Projects
“Extend the T!” is a common refrain on Pittsburgh-focused corners of social media. But most proposed T extensions — to the Airport, the North Hills, or along one of Pittsburgh’s river valleys — would not serve nearly as many people as a line between Downtown and Oakland, nor would they bring about the opportunity to transform Pittsburgh transit by redistributing so many bus vehicle hours to other corridors.
If we are planning a transit system for the next 25 years or more, we need to take another look at a Downtown-Oakland subway. Would it be expensive? Unquestionably so. Lack of funds and bad memories of the North Shore Connector project might explain why the city did not embrace a subway in the 2010s, despite support from politicians. The bigger problem is not that tunnels aren’t being dug right this minute, it’s that the idea of a subway doesn’t even get consideration in a 25-year plan for transit. PAAC, if you’re listening: what’s the harm in giving the Spine Line another look?
As we (hopefully, please, Senate Democrats) enter a period of ambitious investments in infrastructure — especially those with climate and environmental justice benefits, which public transit projects have in abundance — we shouldn’t shy away from ambitious projects. The future of our cities will rely on quality transit. So would a Downtown–Oakland subway be worth it? Absolutely.