(TNS) — It wasn’t the kind of announcement they expected and it isn’t from the source they expected, so Pittsburgh, Pa., Port Authority officials are being cautious about how excited they should get about receiving a $99.95 million grant for the Bus Rapid Transit system.
Instead of an announcement from the Federal Transit Administration, the agency found out about the grant through a tweet from President Donald Trump last Thursday evening, followed by a news release from U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, citing the tweet. And the money is part of a $25 billion package of federal stimulus money approved by Congress in March, not from the Small Grants program to which Port Authority had applied.
So while CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said the agency is thrilled the proposed $225 million project apparently has received the last big piece of funding it needs, officials would wait until after a meeting on June 1 with transit administration officials on the details before they start jumping up and down.
During the authority’s board meeting Friday, Ms. Kelleman made only a brief reference to the grant during her monthly report. “This was news that came out in a tweet late last night,” she told the board.
In an interview later, Ms. Kelleman said she has no doubt the agency has received the grant. But she wants to know when the money will be available, how the agency will receive it and how it can be used.
“We are talking with the FTA on Monday, June 1,” she said. “We want to know all of those details so we know how we can proceed.”
Board Chairman Jeffrey Letwin said he wasn’t expecting the presidential tweet.
“We’re thrilled about that,” he said. “That was certainly spectacular for it to come out that way in a tweet.”
The federal grant was the last big piece of funding for the project, which is designed to improve traffic flow between Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh by putting electric buses on exclusive lanes, inbound on Fifth Avenue and outbound on Forbes Avenue. Fifth Avenue also will have bike lanes.
The system also will use priority lanes at traffic signals to move buses more efficiently on spurs that extend to Wilkinsburg via the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway as well as Highland Park and Squirrel Hill. East End, east suburban and Monongahela Valley buses that pass through Oakland also will use the dedicated lanes.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald noted the project involves more than just transit improvements. It will improve air quality by using electric vehicles and provide upgrades in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, not the 20-feet-underground utility improvements initially planned because the city isn’t ready to proceed yet but new sidewalks with trees, new street lights and paving.
“This is really a project for the entire region, not just Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh, because we have people coming into those areas from all over,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “It was the No. 1 project in this region.”
Mr. Fitzgerald said the funding was “never in doubt” in his mind because federal officials had given the project high ratings. The project remains about $27 million short of full funding, but Mr. Fitzgerald said if that can’t be obtained from foundations, the county will find it somewhere because the project is too important not to move ahead as soon as it’s ready.
Ms. Kelleman said consultants are working on the final design now and the next step is to begin purchasing small amounts of property along the main corridor where new, less frequent stops will be located. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the design of those stations may be tweaked to make them larger to allow more social distancing, she said.
Construction should start next year and the majority of the system should be running in 2023.
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