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The Light Rail North Concept

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Mass Transit

Will this be the mode of transport for the North Hills one day? Photo by David McKeen (Techno Imaging)

Will this be the mode of transport for the North Hills one day?
Photo by David McKeen (Techno Imaging)

Back in December 2012, Steve and I had our Light Rail North concept published on The Next Page in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Forum section. The article generated quite a bit of interest and we were fortunate to present it to high-ranking County officials, members of now-Mayor Peduto’s staff, and County Council members. For this site, we thought it would be a good idea to expand on some of the ideas in a bit more detail, as the concept itself has evolved these past two years.

The premise itself is rather simple. Take a vastly underused asset (the HOV lanes on I-279) and re-purpose it to create a new Light Rail Transit (LRT) line that could connect Cranberry to Pittsburgh. The Light Rail would connect people in both areas together, open up new economic zones in between, and satisfy a growing demand for a more efficient form of mass transit craved by a younger generation.

As it stands currently, Port Authority, Allegheny County, and the City of Pittsburgh are all focused more on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The proposed BRT line would connect Oakland to Pittsburgh, presumably through an exclusive use lane on Fifth and/or Forbes. Both BRT and LRT have their positives and negatives. It seems as if the above entities are pushing forward full bore on BRT, but we want to still keep LRT in the conversation.

BRT and LRT don’t have to be an either/or proposition. They are quite capable of being complementary solutions to the same problem — minimizing traffic on our surface roadways. BRT is a good idea for connecting urban, developed centers together — like Oakland and Pittsburgh. But LRT is a far superior capacity-providing solution to link areas that are further apart — such as bridging the gap of the 18 miles between Cranberry and Pittsburgh.

The Light Rail North would start at the North Shore stop within the General Robinson Parking Garage and, for the most part, stick with existing exits on I-279 North. When the gigantic boring machine was tunneling under the Allegheny, Port Authority had the foresight to say “go ahead and drill some stubs, in case we decide to expand to the north or the west”, so there’s already the makings of the route in the station behind the walls. After that, the remaining stops (heading north from Pittsburgh) would be:

  • Tripoli Street — currently not an exit, would turn existing bridge over I-279 into pedestrian-only bridge
  • McKnight Road — lot of vehicles enter here currently from high population concentrations in North Hills
  • Perrysville — existing Park and Ride lot, end of existing HOV lanes, could turn into major loading node with garage
  • Bellevue/West View — can draw Ohio River Boulevard communities to Light Rail
  • Camp Horne Road — existing retail centers can be augmented as a destination for under-served City dwellers
  • Wexford — highly used exit, can draw Sewickley and Pine residents in via Route 910
  • Warrendale-Bayne Road — existing Park and Ride Lot can be expanded, draw portion of Cranberry and Marshall
  • Cranberry — end point near Cranberry Woods Office Park off of Route 228 to connect Westinghouse, Mine Safety Appliances to Pittsburgh, large and growing population base

When Westinghouse moved from the Monroeville area to Cranberry, it shifted the population dynamics. Over 5,000 people are employed at Westinghouse, to say nothing of the thousands of other jobs in the Cranberry Woods Office Park. The North Hills, in general, is seeing high population growth from the 2000 to 2010 Census. Pine Township (Wexford exit) increased 49.6%, Franklin Park (Wexford) 18.5%, Marshall Township (Warrendale-Bayne) 15.3%, Ohio Township (Camp Horne) 54.1%, and Cranberry (Cranberry) 18.9%.



When HOV lanes were a popular form of ride sharing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, our lives were much different and, perhaps, simpler than today. People typically worked the same time of 8 am to 5 pm, then came home to have dinner by 6 pm. If my neighbor across the street and I worked downtown, it made perfect sense to hitch a ride with them.

Today, there is no standard work time. Some people work 7 am to 3 pm, some work just four days a week, some work part-time from home. And after work is when the real fun starts. Even if my neighbor and I work the same time, he might be going to his daughter’s dance recital and I may have to go to my son’s soccer practice after work. I may choose to stay in town for an after-work dinner. It’s very difficult for two houses to have the same work-life balance in today’s hectic age.

Although carpool lanes may be out of style, the motoring public still desires a form of reliable mass transit. A good form of mass transit, such as LRT, can achieve:

  • Less stress from sitting in traffic
  • Less stress from fighting inclement weather conditions
  • Less money expended for gas, maintenance, and parking costs downtown
  • More flexibility in post-work activities, such as attending cultural events or sporting events downtown



The Port Authority has an image problem. The majority of their transportation fleet are buses, but buses are viewed as slow, dirty, and inefficient with their multitude of stops. The Millennial generation of 18 to 34-year olds are not as interested in owning a car, instead preferring to either bike to work or take mass transit. But this generation wouldn’t get on a “dirty” bus. A clean, sleek LRT system would entice a whole new demographic to using Port Authority.

A LRT would also help justify the somewhat unpopular North Shore Connector project. At present, the $500M+ project is seen as a tunnel under the river, a parking garage, and a subway extension to serve the Pirates and Steelers, as the stops are right outside PNC Park and Heinz Field. Whether that’s fair or not, that’s the public perception. By linking the Light Rail North line into the General Robinson Garage/North Shore T Station, this is a way for Port Authority to justify calling it a multi-modal center. It would make the North Shore station an extremely busy hub, as riders desiring to go into Pittsburgh would disembark and get on a connecting T under the Allegheny River.

By creating a new sleek route to the North, it’s a chance for Port Authority to reinvent what it will be in the future. Relying solely on buses and a South Hills T Line that is essentially a giant bus line is a business plan destined to fail long-term.



Two words — economic development.

The first stop outside the North Shore would potentially be at Tripoli Street. The area to the east of I-279 (Deutschtown), to be polite, is economically-challenged. By having a stop here, there is a chance to create Transit Oriented Development, businesses that would crop up around transit stops to serve users and act as employment centers for mass transit users. Creation of true affordable housing in this area could allow lower-income workers that work in the City to be closer to their jobs, thus eliminating the need for long bus rides with multiple transfers and fears of losing their route.

Outside of the city limits, areas around the other stops could have smaller forms of Transit Oriented Development to help spur on underutilized areas, such as around the Camp Horne Road stop and the Perrysville hub stop.

Millenials, an important demographic that all cities are trying to court, can now live downtown and enjoy the amenities that they desire, while still being able to use mass transit to go to work and retail areas.



This is where Bus Rapid Transit comes out on top. Light Rail has an expensive upfront cost, especially compared to the relatively low upfront costs for BRT. Three recent LRT extensions were examined in Seattle ($100M/mile), Phoenix ($60M/mile), and Minneapolis ($80M/mile). In my opinion, the Minneapolis extension of LRT with 18 stations through urban areas, is the most realistic number.

For the 18.2 mile proposed route, that would be a price tag of $1.45 billion. With a B. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but there are other sources of money to draw from. The State Transit Fund, created under Senate Bill 1, allocated $475M/year for transit. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is used extensively for projects of this nature. There’s also the route of public-private partnerships. Essentially, a large multi-national firm or a conglomerate of firms agrees to front a significant portion of the construction cost in exchange for all the revenues over a long-term period (typically 30-50 years). The firm and Port Authority would jointly handle the maintenance of the LRT, as well.

LRT is worth the initial investment for the capacity of people that can be moved. Let’s presume that if you pack people in like sardines on a standard Port Authority bus, you can fit 80 people. I’ll even bump it up to 100 for purposes of discussion. So no matter how “rapid” the BRT is, you’re only moving so many people per hour — let’s say 400 with four bus runs. A single LRT car can hold 225 people. If you chain four together, you can push 900 users at a time. Run that every 15 minutes during rush hour and you have 3,600 users/hour. Conservatively, that’s at least 2,500 cars off the roads, garages, and parking lots. And that’s just one hour with a fairly long 15 minute headway between cars.

LRT is also worth the investment for the economic development that spurs off of it. Businesses and retail want to locate next to LRT. It’s viewed as an attractive asset for a business zone. It’s also easier to create new transit paths from the LRT stations. More focused and targeted bus routes can be created to funnel people to/from the LRT stations. Port Authority will know that people use them, so they won’t make the LRT stations into white elephants, and can re-focus busing routes accordingly.