A Port Authority bus makes its way through the city.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is hoping the second time’s a charm for its long-in-the-works Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project.

On September 7, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) submitted an application to the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Small Starts Program requesting about $100 million to construct a new transit corridor that would connect Downtown to Oakland via electric buses. The URA, working with Port Authority, had previously applied and that application was not funded.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, the Port Authority said they were optimistic that construction could begin in 2019, one way or another, as they work through the application pipeline.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation rated our proposal highly when it was first submitted last year, and we are confident that it will be recommended for funding in 2019,” says Adam Brandolph, a spokesperson for Port Authority. “Regardless of that decision, we believe in this project’s ability to be so transformative for the region that we will move forward with the project regardless.”

Transit is a major workforce issue in many cities around the country, Pittsburgh included. When employable people eager for jobs can’t access affordable transportation to reach those jobs, communities suffer.

Previous versions of the Small Starts application released to the public earlier this year sparked outrage because of proposed cuts to some bus service to communities in the Mon Valley — places where transportation access to jobs is a key issue.

However, the Port Authority registered those concerns and updated the plan to preserve existing bus lines.

“We applaud the Port Authority for listening to riders’ concerns about the impacts of proposed frequency cuts and mandatory transfers, and for implementing these changes,” says Laura Weins, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

But Weins does say that her organization will still be closely watching the process. “If the federal funding doesn’t come through, we would want the public to be informed of where the matching funding will come from,” she says, “to ensure that our region does not pay for the BRT at the expense of other critical transit needs.”

Both Weins and Brandolph emphasized that the BRT could have a profound impact on many Pittsburgh communities.

“This project isn’t just about public transit. It’s about connecting two of the three largest economic centers in Pennsylvania — Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland,” says Brandolph. “We hope it will also be a catalyst for development in communities and neighborhoods served by those routes.”

In other Port Authority news, 69 new buses will arrive tomorrow and be on the streets by next week as part of a program to deliver more reliable and environmentally-friendly service throughout Allegheny County. They will replace the same number of older buses that have been on the road for at least 12 years and are due to be retired.

Upgrades include driver safety improvements, better external audio systems and larger LED taillights for increased visibility. Each bus cost $460,000, paid for in part by a $3.6 million grant from the FTA’s Bus and Bus Facilities Infrastructure Investment Program, a competitive grant funding program for transit bus projects nationwide. The total cost was $32.3 million, including spare parts and training.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.