Region Begins to imagine the transit network of the future

Thinking boldly
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Civic leaders across southwestern Pennsylvania want people to start thinking big about the future of transportation in the region. Imagine commuter rail extending to the airport, expanded bus rapid transit, connected bike lanes throughout the area, smart traffic signals — that kind of big.

A new leadership coalition, the Regional Transportation Alliance of Southwestern Pennsylvania (RTA), emerged last year as a forum for shaping a bold, more holistic approach to better connect people, jobs and communities through a regional transportation network — a vision long stifled by fiscal constraints and a planning process that traditionally has refrained from using outcome measures to guide the spending of billions of transportation dollars.

By year’s end, the coalition was using “crowd-​sourcing” techniques to reach hundreds of organizations ranging from corporations to human services agencies, hoping to learn their transportation needs and solicit their ideas and support for a shared vision of a 21st –century regional transportation network.

In doing so, they’re taking a page out of the playbook of Denver, which has developed a regional transportation system recognized as a model for effectively connecting city and suburbs with multiple modes of getting around.

Looking west

In the summer of 2014, Denver hosted a benchmarking trip for some 100 civic leaders from southwestern Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, members of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and many others. They saw firsthand the regional FasTracks transportation system and learned from Denver’s public and private sector how it became reality, including the nontraditional approaches taken to winning support and paying for it.

The Pittsburgh visitors came away impressed with not just the vision, but also the process Denver is using to realize it.

Recognizing that they had a problem, figuring out a way to solve it and not waiting for the state capital or Washington, D.C., that really energized us,” says Ken Zapinski, Allegheny Conference senior vice president for energy and infrastructure. “If a place like Denver can do it, why can’t the Pittsburgh region do it? That was the catalyst for the idea behind imagining a different transportation future.”

FasTracks is a metro-​wide transportation network that includes commuter rail, light rail and bus rapid transit. More than 120 miles of rail have been built or are planned for the Denver region, including a line from the airport to Downtown Denver 25 miles away; 18 miles of bus rapid transit; bus service between Denver and Boulder; and the renovation of Denver’s Union Station as a multi-​modal transit hub. And the main funding for the project is a voter-​approved regional sales tax of .4 percent.

How Denver did it

Facing unprecedented growth in the Denver region and a failed transportation funding vote in 1997, diverse public and private sector groups such as Denver Region Council of Governments, Metro Mayors’ Caucus — made up of all 41 mayors in the Denver metro areas — and then-​governor John Hickenlooper formed a coalition to figure out how to get the region on board with a regional light rail system.

Winning the support of the mayors’ caucus was central to the project’s success, says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Those 41 elected officials unanimously supported this investment. That’s important because they’re a diverse group with a diverse set of communities they represent. But they recognized that to really address mobility issues, they needed to solve this together along with the private sector and non-​profits in the coalition.”

In November 2004, the o.4 percent sales tax increase to fund the FasTracks transit system made its way onto the ballot in the eight counties that make up Denver’s Regional Transportation district. It passed, winning 58 percent of the vote.

There have been challenges. The $4.7 billion project is over budget. And the Denver Post reports that only about 6 percent of the region’s population uses bus and light rail to get around. However, 85 percent of residents feel that approving FasTracks was a good idea and most believe it will improve transportation and relieve congestion, according to a recent Regional Transit District-​commissioned survey.

This is one of those projects where for vastly different reasons, people voted yes,” Brough says. “Environmentalists voted yes because it might help with air quality. Some people voted yes because maybe someone up the road will use it and then I can drive in faster. Others voted yes because they were interested in taking transit. I think what the coalition recognized is that all of those may be valid yes votes and one doesn’t trump the other. Let people vote yes for whatever reason and do not try to pigeon hole them into what you think is the best rationale.”

Limitations at home

The road to planning and funding of transportation projects in the Pittsburgh region typically goes through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), which develops both 20-​year and four-​year transportation plans for the region.

The SPC is one of several hundred metropolitan planning organizations established by the federal government as regional transportation planning agencies in urban districts, where billions of federal transportation dollars are spent every year.

As such, planning is influenced by federal regulations and procedures that tend to limit long-​range planning to projects that can reasonably be expected to qualify for government funding.

The SPC is both fiscally and environmentally constrained,” says Steve Craig, SPC chair and co-​chair of the Regional Transportation Alliance Steering Committee. “A good example is that there isn’t a good way to fund the bus rapid transit system that’s envisioned for part of the region. That’s an out-​of-​the-​regular-​funding-​cycle project, partly because of its size and the money it would take to implement.”

The SPC’s current long-​range plan does, however, give examples of large-​scale transportation projects and what other regions have done to increase funding and tackle such projects. It states, for example, if the region wants to pursue a large, visionary project, it needs to “aggressively go beyond the reasonably anticipated funding available through state and federal sources.”

And recent federal mandates significantly change the approach the SPC and organizations like it are required to take to decide how to spend transportation dollars. A U.S. Government Accountability Office study of metropolitan planning organizations concluded that a lack of outcome-​based planning has resulted in three decades of investing in transportation projects whose impacts are largely unknown. It led to changes in 2012 that today require them to develop long-​term transportation plans based on performance outcomes, such as improving safety or reducing congestion, and to set targets for achieving them.

But before any aggressive lobbying for funding to support a broad regional transportation vision in southwestern Pennsylvania can begin, “there has to be an ongoing civic discussion about what the region wants and how they can achieve it,” Zapinski says. “So, the initiative is stepping up to conduct this regional discussion to find out what people want and imagine a new future.”

New approach

As a first step, the RTA is using crowd-​sourcing — a cross between a survey and a focus group — to identify local transportation priorities and solicit ideas for addressing them from nearly 800 organizations, including human services, health care, arts and culture and environmental organizations; universities; labor unions; and major corporations.

This new crowd-​sourcing initiative is reaching out to a broader base of interest groups in the region to engage them in projects that might be transformative and not constrained by the fiscal issues that constrain everything that SPC does,” Craig says . “So, it’s looking at a blue sky kind of perspective of what’s possible in transportation. And that’s not what SPC does. I think there is a sense that patching pot holes and rebuilding bridges isn’t enough, and that’s where the funding leads us now.”

The RTA steering committee is expected to analyze the crowd-​sourcing responses, release the results and begin plotting a course for a regional transit network in early 2016.

Turning big ideas into reality won’t happen as quickly. “You can’t sell ideas that are cooked up by people sitting in a downtown office building,” Zapinski says. “You need a robust regional discussion engaging all corners of the economy, all corners of the region. Having a real conversation with hundreds of stakeholders across the region takes time. If you want a community vision you have to put in the time.”

Julia Fraser

Julia Fraser is a Pittsburgh Today staff writer and research specialist.

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