Red Line train travels through Beechview.

Last week, Pittsburgh residents got their first glimpse of the future of regional transportation with the release of Imagine Transportation 2.0. The report, which was 18 months in the making, comes from the Regional Transportation Alliance of Southwestern PA, and presents seven principles for a better transportation future, as well as 50 ideas to explore in developing a transportation vision for the 10-county region of Southwestern PA.

The 50 ideas center around specific issues and challengesextend the East Busway, for examplewhile the seven principles are as follows:

• Optimize our existing assets.

• Prioritize connections to jobs and education.

• Embrace new operating models.

• Make flexible, future-proof investments.

• Adopt best management practices.

• Support multiple mobility options.

• Operate as an integrated system.

Ken Zapinski, senior vice president, energy & infrastructure at the Allegheny Conference and senior staff lead on the project, talked with NEXTpittsburgh about the report, and the next steps to follow.

Where did the impetus for this study come from?

Back in the summer of 2014, the Allegheny Conference, as part of its ongoing mission of working on sustainable prosperity and quality of life across the region, sponsored a leadership trip for about 100 business executives, civic leaders and elected officials across the 10 counties of Southwestern PA to Denver, one of the regions we are competing with in a global marketplace for jobs, investments, talent, and people. We went to see how they were dealing with the issues that were challenging them, one of them being transportation.

The lesson that that group of leaders took away was that when Denver was facing a transportation challenge, they didn’t wait for Washington or the state capitol to tell them what to do. They took the reins and came up with a regional vision and figured out a way to turn a vision and idea into reality. There was a lot of consensus from the group that we ought to do something like that in Pittsburgh.

Why Denver? Why were they the example you set out to follow?

Denver was attracting a lot of people: 1 million people over 20 years, so 50,000 a year. You may have noticed that we are not attracting people quite at that rate. We wanted to find out what they were doing. They were also an energy community, built in part around the energy industry with a greater and greater tech presence in recent years, so a lot like Pittsburgh. And they had done some major work around envisioning transportation in the future.

I think what the group saw in Denver were people who were energetic and relentlessly optimistic about their ability to change the future, and those two things sort of go hand in hand. They’ll tackle big problems because they think they can solve them. We have that same sense of energy. They solved transport, so we can too.

Were there any surprise findings that emerged over the course of conducting these surveys?

The real “ah-ha” momentwe reached out to more than 800 groups from around the region and heard back from just under half of thosewhat really struck us was that nearly half of the responses were around the issue of public transit. And not just around the City of Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, which has higher transit usage than a lot of places around the country, but it was across the board in all 10 counties.

It was just a really surprise response that there was that much from such a broad, disparate group of stakeholders living in different parts of the community, that it was such an overwhelming choice on how we should address some of these mobility issues. And the way we asked the questions, we didn’t give people options to choose from. It was just a blank piece of paper: “What is the biggest transportation challenge facing your constituents, and how would you suggest solving it?”

What are the next steps now that this report has been released?

It’s kind of a different report for this region. It’s not a report that gets printed and put on a shelf because it’s not made to be printedit’s made to be engaged with online. That being the case, you engage with it online and there is a box at the bottom of any number of pages where you can tell us what you think. You like it, you don’t like it, you have some ideas, whatever. We really want to engage and that’s why it’s called 2.0. 2.0 implies there could be a 2.1 or a 2.2 or a 3.0. It’s definitely part of an ongoing, regional conversation.

This phone interview has been edited for length and clarity. A .pdf of the Transportation 2.0 executive summary can be found at the RTA website.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.