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East Busway addition nearly completed

2.3-mile line 15 years in the making

Saturday, June 07, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Several years ago, a back alley with ruts, puddles, weeds and litter followed the Norfolk Southern Railways tracks through Swissvale.

But the Port Authority has rejuvenated the blighted-looking stretch as part of extending the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway by 2.3 miles, from Wilkinsburg south to the Swissvale-Rankin boundary.

Besides replacing the alley with a buses-only road with modern stations authority officials added amenities not often part of a transit improvement funded mostly with federal funds. Among the features are a narrow "linear park," decorative street lights, a small gazebo, playground equipment, emergency phones and a new South Braddock Avenue railroad bridge with an increased height clearance.

"It seems a truck got stuck in that underpass every other day," said Charles Martoni, a former Swissvale council member who's now a member of the Port Authority Board and County Council.

"[The busway] is the largest, most important capital improvement we've ever had" in the borough.

A week from tomorrow, transit riders can start cashing in on the multimillion-dollar investment that has been more than 15 years in planning, design and construction.

The Port Authority will put buses in daily service on the new concrete right of way that, in Wilkinsburg, ties into the original East Busway that follows the mainline railroad corridor another 6.8 miles to East Liberty, Oakland and Downtown.

"Within the decade, we hope to add 10,000 new riders from the eastern suburbs and Mon Valley," project manager Mike Moorman said. "The community and customers will see the value of the facility increase as time passes."

For now, many of them are in for a wait.

Initially, only three routes will operate on the extension. Coincidentally, they're extensions, too, of the existing East Busway All-Stops (EBA), East Busway Oakland (EBO) and East Busway Express (EBX) routes. Combined, those buses run every few minutes during weekday rush hours. They will no longer use the Hay Street ramp in Wilkinsburg because of the rerouting.

The extension is considered part of Zone 1, so the one-way cash fare will be $1.75.

"With pending budget cuts, we don't have the money to add new service at this time," Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove said.

So instead of ending their EB runs in Wilkinsburg, drivers will now go to the end of the line where they will turn around and head back.

He said plenty of people live within easy walking distance of the busway or can use new park-and-ride lots next to St. Barnabus Church in Swissvale and at Hamnett Way in Wilkinsburg.

A number of Mon Valley routes will be diverted to the East Busway extension at the end of the year, when the Port Authority finishes a Kenmawr Avenue access ramp at the Swissvale-Rankin line.

Buses from Monroeville, Plum and Penn Hills will continue to use the Parkway East and access the busway via Penn Avenue and Wilkinsburg.

Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil said the cost of the busway extension is now estimated at $68.8 million, or about 10 percent over previous projections.

That reflects four years of delays, a settlement with the contractor and consultant, and higher costs of acquiring railroad property, maintaining railroad traffic and buying special insurance required by the railroad, she said.

The Federal Transit Administration is paying 80 percent of the project costs, with contributions from the state and county. Operating funds, such as those from transit fares, are not used to finance capital improvements such as the busway extension.

The linear park, renovations to an historical train station, a pedestrian overpass and a bus stop will not be built in Edgewood until the authority finds the extra money. They were eliminated because of continued opposition from Edgewood officials to the project.

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

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