Gateway Station, Downtown. Photo by Ed Massery.

In the 1980’s, with steel in decline and populations dwindling, the Port Authority of Allegheny County embarked on a broad revamp of the Pittsburgh region’s public transit system. They turned old trolley and railroad tracks into the basis for the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway and the Pittsburgh Light Rail system, known to us as “The T.”

According to Breen Masciotra, a project manager with the Port Authority, it was a different era for urban planning. Arguments in the corridors of City Hall about creating bike lanes were still many years away. “We didn’t have the same sort of philosophy around multi-modalism and walkability,” she says. “We were designing cities more for automobiles.”

That, coupled with the county’s financial constraints at the time, meant broader questions about accessibility and community development were often left unaddressed.

Today, the Port Authority is in the early stages of a new redevelopment program aimed at updating our county’s aged T stations and bus centers. As project manager for the Port Authority’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) department, Masciotra is laying the foundation for a more people-centered approach this time around.

“We need to think about what happens around our stations too,” she says. “We can’t just slap the infrastructure down and call it a day.”

Just over four years old, the TOD team works by conducting technical research and community outreach to create development guidelines for updates to our county’s transit system. They’ve produced overarching policy documents as well as particular plans for the Station Square T stop and Negley Bus Station in East Liberty.

In addition, Masciotra also advises on transit policy at the city level. She was involved in riverfront zoning and provided comments during deliberations on the recently approved inclusionary zoning pilot project.

“The people who use our system who need it most are low-income folks,” she says. “And we want to make sure they can continue to live in places with great transit service, like Lawrenceville.”

Masciotra explains that their recommendations cover everything from the height of the station platforms to the style of windows on nearby businesses (preferably large and at ground level — much friendlier that way).

While she stresses that every community has different needs, Masciotra says the broad goals of transit oriented development are encouraging walkability and a density of people and businesses around the stations.

Last week, the office published a new plan focused on the Dormont Junction T station. It’s their most recent plan, Masciotra says, and will likely be the first station to see redevelopment, though she declined to estimate a timeline.

In addition to a motivated borough government, “market-wise, Dormont is on the upswing and we’d like to be smart about pursuing projects at the right time,” she says.

Some Pittsburghers may wish the focus on accessibility and walkability had come sooner. But Masciotra says Pittsburgh is actually fortunate to be applying TOD guidelines relatively later than many other cities, as it allows us to pick and choose which policies have a proven track record of success.

“This is a national conversation about building livable communities with transit,” she says. It’s about “enabling people to have a lifestyle that could be lived totally on the transit system.”

Bill O'Toole

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