Above: Port Authority senior analyst Amy Silbermann and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald greet an audience Monday night at the Palisades ballroom in McKeesport. (Tube City Almanac photo)
Port Authority officials and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald came to McKeesport on Monday night to explain a "bus rapid transit" system that they said would relieve overcrowding and late buses between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland.
But what residents heard was that McKeesport, Duquesne and Homestead could soon be getting 45 percent less service from the heavily traveled 61C route --- and they don't like it.
At times, the atmosphere in the Palisades ballroom was tense, with arguments breaking out at one table between residents and Port Authority board members, and Fitzgerald exchanging sharp remarks with transit advocates in the audience.
"I chose to live in McKeesport because I saw that the bus service would be beneficial to me," said Dan Beyerlein, who said the 61C is his lifeline to doctors in Squirrel Hill and Oakland, and provides a connection to his church in Wilkinsburg.
Eliminating 45 percent of the 61C's daily runs to McKeesport, Beyerlein said, would make him unable to get his connecting buses. "Then I'm late to my doctor's appointments and there's nothing I can do about it," he said.
The hearing in McKeesport on Monday --- originally scheduled for Oct. 11 --- was the second of three in the Mon Valley.
The first was held Oct. 2 in Braddock and the third will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 18) at Duquesne City Hall, 12 S. Second St.
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The proposed bus rapid transit system, or BRT, would connect downtown Pittsburgh with Oakland using dedicated bus lanes, with buses running every three to five minutes during peak hours.
Some buses using the BRT would circulate in a continuous loop, while others would leave the BRT system in Oakland and continue on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway; on surface streets to Greenfield; or to Shadyside and Highland Park.
The BRT is designed to solve a severe overcrowding problem on current bus routes between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, said Amy Silbermann, a senior analyst at Port Authority.
Above: Port Authority's Amy Silbermann. (Almanac photo)
Buses passing through the Oakland corridor are late 27 percent of the time, and are among Port Authority's top 10 most overcrowded routes, she said.
"The buses are unreliable between Oakland and Downtown," Silbermann said, "especially during rush hour. Buses are bunching up --- meaning buses on the same route are coming one after the other. That's really bad."
But the transit authority's data indicates that after a bus leaves downtown Pittsburgh headed toward Oakland, most of its passengers exit before they get to Squirrel Hill, and many of the remaining passengers get out in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood, she said.
The 61C serves McKeesport, Duquesne, Homestead, Squirrel Hill and Oakland's hospitals and universities before heading into the Golden Triangle.
On average, 61Cs arrive in McKeesport from Pittsburgh with about eight passengers, Silbermann said.
If the BRT system is implemented, then the 61C would go from McKeesport to Oakland, where riders would be required to transfer to a BRT bus to continue into the Golden Triangle.
Other bus routes that would terminate in Oakland, and no longer go into downtown Pittsburgh, would include the 61A to North Braddock and 61B to Swissvale, and the 71-series buses to Wilkinsburg and Point Breeze.
The 61C buses also would run less frequently --- on 30-minute headways instead of the current 15-minute headways.
"I'd be interested to see how this doesn't disproportionately harm people of color, low-income people and people with disabilities," said Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, who was in the audience of about 40 people.
"What people are hearing is that they're going to have less service," she said. "We appreciate that you're going to get people from downtown to Oakland five minutes faster, but in the meantime, people are going to be waiting on the street in McKeesport for 30 minutes."
That brought a sarcastic retort from Fitzgerald: "I guess things are going so well in McKeesport that we can leave everything like it is."
The county executive added that transit ridership to and from McKeesport is down 27 percent, while the area's population is down 20 percent. Ridership on the 61C alone is down 37 percent, Fitzgerald said.
"Don't you think some of that ridership decline is due to the cutbacks in the bus routes on the hills around McKeesport?" asked Sue Scanlon, a Port Authority transit driver who works out of the West Mifflin garage, and a member of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. "People have found other ways to get around."
"You lost ridership because you eliminated service in Port Vue, Liberty and Glassport," added Carole Kast, a commuter from Port Vue. "We've been down this road before."
Silbermann said the Port Authority estimates that more frequent and more reliable bus service in the Golden Triangle-Oakland corridor would have ripple effects that would increase overall ridership 10 percent.
"If you take away service, how are you going to increase ridership?" McKeesport Councilwoman Fawn Walker-Montgomery said.
The audience of about 40 people included Port Authority's interim chief executive officer, David L. Donahoe, several Port Authority board members, and transit advocates such as Wiens.
The discussion was sometimes heated. At least one person was heard calling the meeting "a farce."
"You made a lot of these decisions before you even came here tonight," Helen Gerhardt, an organizer with Just Harvest, told Fitzgerald and Donahoe.
Above: Helen Gerhardt of Squirrel Hill, an organizer with Just Harvest. (Almanac photo)
"I am all for data-driven decision making, but the people who are going to be affected were left out of these decisions," said Gerhardt, who lives in Squirrel Hill and said she rides the 61C "every day."
Most of the people that her agency serves don't have cars, she said, and they shop for food every few days, going to and from the store on buses.
"There are a lot of people being displaced right now (from Pittsburgh) to areas like Penn Hills and McKeesport, which already puts them under enormous stress, and if you then cut down the frequency of bus service, you can really wreck people's lives," Gerhardt said.
Some people were rankled because BRT is being designed to speed people between Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh.
"The people on the BRT system will have the cream of the crop, and all of these different options for buses," Pearl Hughey of Rankin said. "Out here, we'll still only have one option."
According to published reports, residents of the Braddock area who attended the Oct. 2 hearing voiced similar complaints.
Port Authority officials stressed that nothing about BRT has yet been decided, and that the agency will listen to all of the comments it receives before making a decision.
Fitzgerald and Silbermann said one idea under discussion is increasing the frequency of two routes that connect McKeesport with downtown Pittsburgh but avoid Oakland --- the 56 via Lincoln Place and the P7 McKeesport Flyer.
"We're not trying to hurt the community --- we're trying to help the community," Fitzgerald said.
He said Port Authority has studied 42 different alternatives for improving service through the Oakland corridor, and the proposed solution was the best.
Updated plans will be presented to the public in Spring 2018, Silbermann said, with project construction estimated to begin in 2019 and 2020.
The estimated cost of the upgrades necessary to implement BRT is $195 million, Fitzgerald said, but the Port Authority expects substantial savings each year in its operating budget.
Originally published October 16, 2017.