Peculiar Pittsburgh

Why Pittsburgh’s light rail only goes to the South Hills

What would trolleys do?

The T on Arlington Avenue

The T on Arlington Avenue

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum / Photo by JOHN POLYAK
MJ Slaby

Growing up, Nicole Sharkey Welsh rode the T from one part of Downtown to the other after marching in the St. Patrick’s Day and Labor Day parades with her dad.

Later, as a student of what was then Point Park College, she used the light rail system to go shopping in the South Hills, and then used it even more often when she moved there. But then she relocated north of the city, to Fox Chapel.

“The T no longer makes sense for me, but it’s still something I think about,” she told The Incline in an email. So Sharkey Welsh asked:

Why did Pittsburgh only create light rail for the South Hills? Why was it never created in other suburbs?

She sent her question to our Peculiar Pittsburgh series, where readers submit questions for The Incline to investigate.

Her question came in before the Aug. 5 train derailment that sent freight cars toppling onto light-rail tracks near Station Square. The station was closed until last week, as workers repaired damaged tracks and power lines. For riders dependent on the T, that meant reroutes and shuttle buses to get to Downtown. With the T now back to its regular schedule, we turned back to Sharkey Welsh’s question and found the answer is a mix of transit history, geography, and money.

Tracing tracks

The decision to run light rail to the South Hills wasn’t so much about picking that part of the city over others, but about the existing infrastructure from Pittsburgh’s large 19th-century trolley system.

In the mid 1800s, Pittsburgh started a public transit system with its first horse-drawn streetcar, which was upgraded to cable cars and electric streetcars by the end of the century, said Brian Butko, director of publications at the Senator John Heinz History Center. There were millions of riders per year.

The trolley system grew and grew, and ridership peaked in 1920, WESA noted. But with that growth came multiple privately owned companies running different services. By the 1950s, 33 ran buses, inclines and trolleys — the biggest was Pittsburgh Railways Company, which owned more than 600 trolley carsSo in 1956, the Pa. General Assembly consolidated the companies by creating the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which transitioned from streetcars to buses, mainly to save money in operations and maintenance, per WESA.

But the rail lines to the South Hills remained, making the change to the light rail system that exists now.

While light rail and streetcars/trolleys share similarities, there are some noticeable differences, per the American Public Transportation Association. In general, light rail routes are longer, cars are connected, and they move at a faster speed than a trolley. Also, light rail can travel on streets — like it does here — but is more like a train, with tracks and signals. Trolleys are more like buses, as they travel on the streets and follow traffic lights.

“As I understand it, as Port Authority slowly dismantled the trolley system in the 1960s, the Red Line and Blue Line were the last to be taken away because it was difficult to operate buses in the area, and those lines had the largest sections of right-of-way owned by Port Authority,” Adam Brandolph, spokesman for the Port Authority, told The Incline in an email.

Those Port Authority-owned thoroughfares were different from other trolley paths that were on public streets now dominated by cars.

Additionally, the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel was built in 1904 for the trolleys, said Scott Becker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.  In a way, the tunnel is still being used for trolley cars — just the modern light rail kind, he said. You go through that same tunnel between the Station Square and South Hills Junction stops.

1974 in Beechview

1974 in Beechview

Courtesy of Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

Rail expansion (or lack thereof)

In 2012, the light rail’s controversial North Shore Connector opened, adding two stops on the North Shore near PNC Park and Heinz Field.

After repeated added costs, the extension cost $523.4 million and took five and a half years to build, the Post-Gazette reported at the time. It took two decades of planning, faced criticism on the national stage, and was almost stopped due to inflation in construction costs and a $1.2-million design flaw.

And while there have been many, many proposals for other expansions, none have happened.

Sharkey Welsh said she’d love to have light rail that went to the East End and to Aspinwall, near where she lives, but it’s the lack of a T from Downtown to Oakland that’s always confused her.

Suggestions for rail between Downtown and Oakland go back to the early 1900s, said Jonathan Kline, an associate studio professor in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and an urban designer.

Other ideas included going from Downtown to as far as Monroeville or the Pittsburgh International Airport, an idea that came up again during this year’s State of the Airport event.) There was even talk of a streetcar from the Strip District to Lawrenceville, and one study looked at extending that to New Kensington, Kline said.

But light rail expansions need money, and since those funds come from the federal government, adding to T also depends on politicians, said Sabina Deitrick, of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for Social and Urban research at University of Pittsburgh.

Other barriers include where to put the tracks and how to acquire the land and space needed, Kline said.

Instead of asking why only the South Hills has a light rail, Deitrick said the question should be: “What happened to the rest of the original plan?”

“This city tore out its light rail. That was its problem,” she said.

Other options

One place where tracks do still exist is in Allentown, but the light rail stopped running there in 2011 for financial reasons. However, during the Station Square closure, the light rail rain through Allentown as a reroute. Some in the neighborhood welcomed the T’s return and rallied for the service to continue. Returning light rail there would cost Port Authority an estimated $1.3 million annually, while currently four bus lines service the neighborhood, TribLive reported.

Public perception says light rail is superior to buses, and while light rail can help revitalize an area and can be cleaner, it has a lot of similarities to a busway, Kline said. Both can transport a large number of people and have fixed stations.

But buses are less expensive because they don’t require tracks, can run on existing streets, and are more flexible if a path needs to change, he said.

From a planning perspective, bus rapid transit and busways are efficient and achieve the same thing as light rail for less money and faster, Kline said.

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