Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Light Rail to the North - Concept Plan

Note - The following was a concept paper that I submitted to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's Vision Team Committee on Transportation.  There was an open call for written submissions ahead of the sure-to-be painful public testimony on May 4th.

If the North Shore Connector was built solely to serve as stops for the North Shore and Allegheny stations, then it was a colossal waste of $500+ million dollars.  However, I do not believe that was the intent of the project.  Early descriptions of the project referred to it as a multi-modal center where different forms of transportation would be able to access the North Shore station.  It would be sort of a mini Grand Central Station for Pittsburgh.

To that end, its most logical next step would be to serve as a jumping-off point for light rail service to the North Hills.  I am sure that in the offices of the Port Authority, there are a multitude of studies collecting dust of shelves that are proposing very similar ideas to mine; however, I would be remiss if I didn’t submit my opinion, as well.
The “T” to the South Hills is effective and well used.  It acts more as a bus on rails, though, then a mass transit train.  There are many stops on both the Red Line and Blue Line to the South Hills, which makes it very neighborhood based.  The passengers can walk from their homes, in many cases, to the “T” or utilize small auxiliary parking lots as stand-in park-and-rides.

For the North Hills, the spine of my proposed system is already in place – the vastly under-used High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes of I-279’s northern branch.  This version of light rail service would be more park-and-ride based, as there would be many fewer stops.  As you will see, most of the 7 stops proposed are at exits along I-279 or I-79.  The HOV lanes would cease to exist for cars and trucks.  The rail beds would be placed right on top of the existing traffic lanes.
Moving north from the North Shore station, the first stop would be in the Tripoli Street zone of the North Side.  The small platforms for this stop would be down on the rail bed area, while access would be off of the Tripoli Street bridge via stairs/escalators/elevators.  The Tripoli Street bridge would need to be expanded slightly for pedestrian access lanes.  In the area of Tripoli Street and Lovitt Way, there is an ample amount of empty lots and under-utilized buildings that could be demolished to make way for a surface park-and-ride lot or small garage to serve the commuters at this stop.  An added benefit to this project is the redevelopment of neighborhoods utilizing the light rail serve as a catalyst.  Transit Oriented Development (TOD) could potentially spring up around these stops, whether it was a mixed use building with retail/commercial on the bottom and affordable housing apartments on top or small restaurants to cater to the commuter.  It would be a way to jumpstart this forgotten area of the North Side.

Continuing north from Tripoli Street, the next logical stop would be at the McKnight Road exit.  This area is the main loading node in the morning for commuters traveling on I-279 from the North.  The perfect area for the park-and-ride lot here would have been where WPXI just built their brand-new studio.  In lieu of that, the next best location may be to acquire the homes below WPXI or examine the possibility of the wooded area adjacent to the off ramp of Evergreen Road from I-279 North.
After the McKnight exit, the main hub of the potential commuter park-and-ride facet could be slanted towards the Perrysville exit.  There is already a sizeable park-and-ride surface lot available here.  By taking it from one level to a multi-level mega garage, this could be turned into the hub for commuters to use in the North Hills.  The smaller park-and-ride lot, with the salt dome, could be kept as an overflow surface lot.

Although this is the end of the present-day HOV lane to the North Hills, I am proposing that the light rail continue to extend northward utilizing the median space between the two current lanes of I-279 Northbound and Southbound traffic.  More space can be gained in the median area by shifting the northbound and southbound lanes a few feet to the side.  The bridges from this point forward do not have support foundations in the median area and a few feet could be procured from the shoulder area underneath these bridges.
The next stop would be the Bellevue-West View stop along I-279.  The most logical location for a park-and-ride lot would be at the foot of the grounds of the Sisters of the Holy Family off of Bellevue Road.  Due to the sensitive nature of obtaining ground from a religious entity, this lot would not be too large in comparison to the other lots and there would be no secondary facility or off-shoot development proposed.

Camp Horne Road would be the next stop on the Light Rail, with the vacant land adjacent to Joseph’s Lane, across from the Stone Quarry Business Park, making a good location for the park-and-ride lot.  Alternatively, the erstwhile Green Valley Golf Course land would provide a plethora of parking spots, but a small spur people mover would probably need to be constructed to shuttle people along Camp Horne Road to the platform area.
The light rail could continue to move along the median of I-279 and merge into I-79’s median in order to open up the heavily utilized Wexford exit of I-79.  The area at this intersection of I-79/Rt 910 leads to severe traffic problems during rush hour.  Installing a park-and-ride at this specific location would not help the situation in regards to traffic flow, so perhaps shifting the platform and parking area northward to the Mingo Road area would help alleviate some of the traffic here.

The final stop that I am proposing under this plan would be at the Warrendale-Bayne exit off of I-79.  At Brush Creek Road, there is already a park-and-ride surface lot.  Typically, this lot is full no later than 7 am, so either expanding this or turning it into a multi-level garage would help collect traffic from this node.  Many people that live on the border of Cranberry and Marshall utilize this parking lot to commute into town or take the bus.
Mass transit is the key to future population growth in Allegheny County.  It will help take individual vehicles off of our surface roads and minimize traffic snarl in downtown Pittsburgh.  A truly great city is defined by its transit and transportation capabilities.  It is time to change the thinking from single passenger motor vehicle transit to a more efficient mass transit model.

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