Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV
population 2,661,369 (2012)
Pittsburgh is a transit anomaly. As nearly every U.S. city eliminated its streetcar system, Pittsburgh kept its intact. Then, as other cities began planning rail transit again, Pittsburgh tore up nearly all of its track. The remaining lines were modernized — but only partially. At the same time, the transit agency made massive investments in the country’s most advanced busways. And now, in an era of cost-effective street-running light rail lines, Pittsburgh is building a 2-station subway. Pittsburgh transit history is convoluted and sometimes confused, and that’s reflected in the resulting system.
The most problematic aspect of Pittsburgh transit, though, is not in infrastructure but in organization. In the 1956, when the city of Pittsburgh proved unable to finance its own transit, the state legislature took the unusual step of creating the Port Authority of Allegheny County (which never actually built any port facilities) with transit as one of its missions, and in 1963 the authority bought the local private transit operators.. That solved the immediate problem. But, unlike agencies in other states, the PAT does not have its own revenue source. Every year, the state legislature has to appropriate funding. In a state where the balance of power lies in rural areas and small towns, not cities, that funding is targeted every time state tax revenues are tight. So even as the PAT has built new infrastructure with federal funds, it has frequently had to cut operations. Pittsburgh is the only city where a light rail line operates during rush hours only, it abandoned commuter rail in 1989, just as other cities were building new systems, and it has the dubious distinction of being only city to build a modern rail transit line (the one-station Penn Park spur) and then take it out of service.
The historic roots of Pittburgh’s light rail are obvious in suburban Bethel Park. The train is obviously modern, but the jointed track and the wooden poles are those of a 100 year old rural streetcar line. In the background is Lytle, one of 25 modern high-platform stops on the system; they are outnumbered by 43 simple stops like the one at Center, in the foreground.
The modernization program proceeded in phases; arguably. it is still incomplete. The first step, built in 1981-1987, had four parts. The most radical was a downtown subway, replacing street trackage on the Smithfield Street Bridge and in Downtown with a new river crossing on an abandoned railroad bridge and a three-station underground segment serving the central business district. Nearly as radical was the reconstruction of the route through suburban Beechview, with another new tunnel segment in Mount Lebanon replacing half a mile of street running. The plan also included a new suburban branch serving a park-and-ride garage at South Hills Village, also home to the system’s new maintenance shop, which housed a fleet of new light rail vehicles.
But the rebuilding was not total. The Overbrook Route, parallel to the Beechview line, was untouched, and its timber bridges continued to decay. The route to the Drake Loop was not upgraded for the new vehicles, so old streetcars continued running on it; in fact, the Downtown subway had to be designed to accommodate them. And most of the suburban stops were untouched, still consisting of no more than a patch of asphalt and perhaps a small shelter.
The second phase came after the Overbrook line finally decayed so much that all service has to be stopped. More funding was found, and the line was completely rebuilt, with new tracks, new bridges, and new handicapped-accessible stops. The project also included additional light rail cars. In the interim, the route was closed for __ years. At the same time, the last of the old streetcars was taken out of service, and the Drake line was abandoned.
After 25 years of construction, the Pittsburgh light rail system is an odd mix of old and new. Brand-new vehicles stop at 100-year-old stops that don’t even have platforms. Nowhere, even in modern stations, are there ticket machines: fares are collected by station agents and train operators. And the Downtown subway terminus has an old-fashioned loop where light rail cars screech around curves that seem better suited for trolleys.
And none of that construction has expanded the system: it still serves only Downtown and one slice of suburbs. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are the only light rail systems that has contracted over the past 30 years. But that’s about to change. Tunnel machines are boring under the Allegheny River to extend the subway to the north shore. It’s a small extension: the end is a 20-minute walk from the beginning, and the two new stations serve mainly stadiums and museums. But the PAT notes that it could be the beginning of something more. Meanwhile, a study is underway to look at options for improved transit to Oakland, a dense neighborhood surrounding Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. If that study leads to a new bus rapid transit line (taking the place of buses in mixed traffic that replaced streetcar service in 1967) it could mark the beginning of the T’s expansion into a more comprehensive system. But, given Pittsburgh’s odd history and tenuous funding, that’s not a sure thing.
Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs grew around the old streetcar lines that are now the “T.” As a result, the tracks are embedded in the hearts of the small towns along the way. Here, an outbound train on the reconstructed Overbrook line curves through Castle Shannon.
Five scenes from a light rail trip: the downtown subway; a train leaves Downtown Pittsburgh on a former Pennsylvania Railroad bridge; a train emerges from the tunnel into the South Hills; the street-running section in Beechview; at bottom; tunnel under the town center of Mt. Lebanon. The Mt. Lebanon tunnel, the subway, and the line over the bridge date from the 1987 modernization, and the street section was rebuilt at the same time.