Pittsburgh Union-Progress: Long-range regional transportation plan increases spending for public transit

The draft long-range transportation plan for 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties and the city of Pittsburgh calls for spending $41.4 billion over the next 25 years for roads, bridges, public transit and trail improvements.

That’s nearly a $10 billion increase since the plan was updated four years ago and marks a major change in emphasis from road and bridge work to public transit. Under the new proposal from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, transit spending is expected to increase from $14.4 billion to $26.8 billion while road and bridge spending is expected to drop from $17.3 billion to $14.6 billion.

Domenic D’Andrea, director of SPC’s office of transportation planning, emphasized the agency hasn’t shifted its priorities but planned future spending based on where it expects funding to be available over the next 25 years. The agency plans how federal transportation money will be spent in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties, as well as Pittsburgh.

“I don’t think there’s a shift in priorities,” he said. “We look at the revenues and what we think is going to be available.”

The Biden administration’s stimulus plan earmarked billions for public transportation because that addresses the president’s goal to reduce air pollution.

“This is going to be a really exciting time” for transit as a result of the extra funding, Dave Totten, SPC’s transit planner, said during a recent public input meeting in Pittsburgh.

He noted the plan includes funding for major Pittsburgh Regional Transit initiatives such as building a new maintenance garage, replacing light rail vehicles, extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway to Monroeville and developing a transit corridor from Pittsburgh’s Strip District to Oakland, Hazelwood and Overbrook neighborhoods that could include the use of gondolas.

Other counties can expect help replacing diesel buses with electric vehicles and funding for other projects. One of those would be creating a common payment system for all transit agencies in the region, to make it easier for customers to transfer from one agency’s system to another for longer commutes.

Butler County is conducting a study on the feasibility of setting up a transfer station near the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

Although there will be a smaller pool of money for roads and bridges, D’Andrea said, a higher percentage of that money will go toward bridge projects. That’s because billions have been earmarked under President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan to upgrade thousands of bridges, he said.

D’Andrea said the region “has made some pretty good strides” over the past 10 years, reducing the number of state-maintained bridges in poor condition to 9.5% and locally owned bridges to 25%. The agency is emphasizing funding for local bridges, holding seminars in recent months to help local officials find funds for their projects.

“You’re going to see a lot more bridge projects,” he said. “Everybody is getting money for bridges. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Pittsburgh, in particular, has several bridge projects moving forward:

  • Charles Anderson Bridge in Schenley Park, which was closed earlier this year after inspectors found structural problems, had a $48 million rehabilitation project moved up to next year.
  • Swindell Bridge over Interstate 279 on the city’s North Side has a $27 million rehab project set for 2026.
  • Larimer Avenue Bridge, above Washington Boulevard in Larimer, has $14 million for work scheduled after 2027.

D’Andrea said the collapse last year of Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge between Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze “brings focus to the issue” of bridge conditions but really had little to do with the city seeing an increase in projects. He noted the agency has to stay nimble to accommodate special cases where a bridge unexpectedly needs to be added to the work list, such as the Versailles Avenue Bridge in McKeesport, where a $10 million replacement project moved up after serious deterioration was discovered.

The draft also includes billions of dollars in road projects throughout the region, such as a $30 million traffic management system for the Parkway East in Pittsburgh, designed to ease crowded conditions by limiting where vehicles can enter the highway.

Another major project already underway is the $137 million installation of a diverging diamond interchange at Interstate 70 and Route 51 in Rostraver, Westmoreland County. The design reduces side-impact collisions by having traffic switch sides of the road going through the interchange.

Other proposed work includes eight projects on Route 21 in Fayette and Greene counties; 19 projects on Route 28 in Allegheny and Armstrong counties; 11 on Route 30 in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties; and 13 on Route 51 in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

Although the spending plan appears to be robust, the report cautions there will be a shortfall in needed funds after the stimulus program ends in four years. It estimates the region will be $15.5 billion short of needed funds for the recommended projects unless something changes.

“The overall conclusion is that investment decisions for the highway and bridge asset management categories are diversified and reflect an appropriate overall commitment to Asset Management spending. But the overall shortfall in available funding is serious and means that without an overall increase in funding, transportation system performance will deteriorate during the period of this plan.”

The agency has two more virtual public meetings this week to discuss the draft plan:

  • 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday for Butler County.
  • 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday for Allegheny County.

The SPC board is scheduled to vote on the draft plan when it meets June 27.

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