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Mon Valley is Turning a Corner, Panelists Say --- But Transportation Challenges Remain

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
April 23, 2018
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Above: State Rep. Austin Davis, left, makes a point as state Rep. Paul Costa and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle listen during Friday's legislative breakfast, sponsored by the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)

Although the Mon Valley is finally turning an economic corner, lack of good transportation to and from the region's "job centers" remains a obstacle.

That was the message delivered by elected officials and business leaders Friday during the annual legislative breakfast of the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce.

Several panelists mentioned the need for the long-delayed extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway through West Mifflin and Duquesne, to provide major highway access to brownfields in the McKeesport area.

But transportation progress can't begin and end with the expressway, state Rep. Austin Davis said. "If you've seen some of the growth that has taken place in the city of Pittsburgh, in places like East Liberty, it's because of access to public transportation," Davis said. "It's been transit-oriented development."

McKeesport, Duquesne and Clairton need direct access to the Port Authority's East Busway, he said, which would provide residents of those communities with quick connections to "job centers" in Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh.

Last year, as part of its planned creation of a "Bus Rapid Transit" loop between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, the Port Authority proposed sharp cutbacks to some bus routes --- especially the 61C, which connects McKeesport, Duquesne and Homestead to Squirrel Hill, Oakland, the Hill District and the Golden Triangle.

After strong public outcry, the Port Authority revised its plans and rescinded the proposed cuts.

Above: Jon Delano of KDKA-TV (2) moderates a discussion at the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative breakfast. The event attracted nearly 200 people Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin.

"The original plan was not as friendly to the Mon Valley as we would have liked," Davis said, especially considering that McKeesport and Clairton "have already seen significant cuts in bus levels."

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, another panelist, agreed with Davis that the East Busway --- which currently ends at Rankin --- needs to be extended.

"This younger generation wants to use transit and they want to use the bike trails," Fitzgerald said. "We need to extend that busway."

Moderated by Jon Delano, money and politics editor for KDKA-TV (2), the legislative breakfast attracted nearly 200 people to Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin.

"It has always seemed to me that the Mon Valley gets short-shrift, not just from government officials, but also from the media," Delano said, but added, "there's no question that there's a lot happening in this region."

He pointed to the revitalization of the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth avenue corridors in Munhall and Homestead, and to the rebirth of Braddock Avenue in Braddock.

Another panelist was Evan Indianer, chief executive officer of Unicentric, a software company who provides services to health care providers, social work agencies and other "people who help people," according to the firm's motto.

Almost three years ago, Indianer told his employees he was relocating the company from Pittsburgh's Strip District to a former church in Braddock.

"Imagine my employees' expressions when I told them we were moving to Braddock," he said. "The first thing they brought up was 'crime.' So I pulled up the stats and showed them the crime rates were worse in the Strip District than in Braddock."

Since relocating, Indianer said, the company has tried to engage with community organizations and its neighbors. "Our tagline is 'software for people who help people,' and we decided we needed to put our money where our mouth is," he said.

Working with the Enterprise Zone Corp. of Braddock, Indianer helped put together a 12-person public relations committee that is working to rebrand Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale and North Braddock as "the East Shore" of Pittsburgh.

"It's not an attempt to change the names of these boroughs," Indianer said. "It is an attempt to change the status quo and change the perceptions. We're trying to tell people, it's OK, it's cool to go down there. We need to get the message out that there are good things happening in the community."

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, another panelist, grew up in Swissvale and remembers Braddock during its heyday. "We've seen things change, but rather than sitting around, waiting for the steel mills to come back, we've reinvented ourselves," he said.

Many metropolitan areas are eager to attract Amazon's so-called "second headquarters," and Pittsburgh is reportedly on a short list of regions being considered.

"We'd love to have Amazon come here, but we're at the stage now that it's not life or death if they do," Doyle said. "Either way, we will continue to grow."

Originally published April 23, 2018.

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