(TNS) — Beaver County, Pa., like most of Appalachia, has historically evolved alongside breakthroughs in transportation.
Riverside boroughs saw significant population growth following the introduction of railroads in the second half of the 19th century, with the Pennsylvania Railroad system connecting Rochester and Freedom with Conway and Baden on one side of the Ohio River and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad fortifying Monaca and what would eventually become Aliquippa on the other.
Streetcars had eased travel between towns by the end of the century, prompting a new age of tourism and economic development in Beaver County communities.
Population sizes continued to grow as J&L Steel set up shop in subsequent decades, and so did the need for reliable transportation. Trolley lines, passenger trains and bus companies came and went, but automobiles ultimately reigned supreme. Talks of interstates and infrastructure soon followed.
For more than 80 years, western Pennsylvania has considered ways to ease traffic congestion on roadways and reduce the state's carbon footprint amid climate change concerns. The state has the second-most structurally deficient bridges in the United States, according to an American Road and Transportation Builders Association report released last year, as well as some of the worst roads in the country — realities that some say only exacerbate the urgency for innovation.
When transit is discussed in Pittsburgh, ideas often include light-rail, air service, highways, Hyperloop and, more recently, gondolas. Mayor Bill Peduto is entertaining the possibility of a Pittsburgh Mobility Authority to better connect neighborhoods with non-traditional transit.
Beaver County isn't Pittsburgh, and the city's solutions are not always viable here, but proposals such as a high-speed Hyperloop and driverless vehicles could be in our future, even as automobiles remain vital to the American way of life.
"Passenger cars are not going anywhere right now, but how we use them, and how we approach public transit and commercial travel will inevitably change," said Ralph Mandel, a Pittsburgh-based urban developer. "It has to."
Rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft are already the norm in most metropolitan areas, and carpool lanes continue to incentivize collective travel. What's next, Mandel said, is electric and self-driving vehicles, although it's unclear how long it'll be before either of those technologies are standardized. Argo.ai, a Pittsburgh-based driverless car startup, already offers driverless delivery services here and elsewhere throughout the country.
Less than a decade after Maglev Inc. went bankrupt and plans for a state-of-art electromagnetic "people mover" fell through in Pittsburgh, the city is now considering a high-speed Hyperloop.
The technology, still young, would theoretically transport passengers in tubes at speeds exceeding 500 miles per hour by electromagnetic propulsion and magnetic levitation. This could drastically reduce commute times, but build-out would be expensive and demanding.
The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission is considering a 30-year Midwest Connect plan to connect Pittsburgh and Chicago through Columbus with a 41- minute commute time. The group estimates roughly $300 billion in economic benefits for communities along the corridor and a sizable environmental benefit resulting in fewer vehicles on the road.
Another group, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency is working on a project called the Great Lakes Hyperloop System, which would connect Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh — promising an estimated travel time of 48 minutes between Pittsburgh and Chicago.
The agency and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. completed a feasibility study late last year estimating the project's cost to be about $40 billion, although investors could expect a profit of $30 billion during its first 25 years of operation, the study said. Costs for the routes involving Pittsburgh range from $8.4 billion to $9.1 billion.
"The financial and economic results are unprecedented, illustrating a strong case for the public-private partnership to continue working to bring hyperloop to the Great Lakes corridor," authors wrote in the study.
How transportation will advance in the next few decades is still uncertain, so it's important to be realistic and prioritize our immediate needs, Mendel said. Sustainable public transportation and additional air service is a catalyst to more inclusivity.
In many cities, here being no exception, buses are not always dependable. They run late, slowly and change routes with little notification. Proper bus lanes, routes and signals can solve some of these issues.
"Making public transportation, especially buses, more reliable, available and safe is a safe bet," he said. "This could mean more Beaver County Transit Authority investment, or diverse, affordable flight options with hub connectivity. Ultimately, it's up to communities how they want to propel into the mid-21st century."
©2020 Ellwood City Ledger, Pa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.