Downtown ‘mobility’; PIT’s wings & prayers

Downtown ‘mobility’; PIT’s wings & prayers

Something tells us the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and its consultants for a “Downtown Pittsburgh Mobility Plan” might need to change their tack.

The Post-Gazette reports the “mobility” effort seeks to “devise the most efficient ways to use streets in the Golden Triangle.”

Some of the interim recommendations could include “widening sidewalks, setting aside streets or portions as delivery areas and improving lighting,” the P-G notes.

“In many cases, there may be a need for one set of standards during weekdays, when 110,000 employees come into the business district, and another at night and on weekends, when people come into the area for entertainment, major events or sports,” the newspaper says.

That said, a major goal of the effort is to reduce congestion through improved public transit.

If that involves lowering the Port Authority’s still-out-of-whack bus service cost structure, it’s certainly long overdue

But luring riders back to buses could be a tall order in the post-pandemic environment, either because of restrictions on how many people can  be on a bus at one time or the public’s reluctance to return to a form of transportation that some consider to be a coronavirus incubator, no matter the headcount.

Human nature, however, has a way of upending the supposedly best-laid government plans.

Personal freedom looms large. If the public perception that “you can’t get there from here” – long a Pittsburgh aphorism – only gets worse and it turns out you really can’t get there from here with evermore Downtown traffic restrictions, the mess becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Downtown bicycle lanes already have made the Golden Triangle less navigable than ever.

The ultimate question for traffic planners should be if their grand designs retard or increase commercial activity. Too often in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the answer has been the former.

And that would be anathema to the kind of robust economic revival post-pandemic Pittsburgh requires.

The $1.1 billion Pittsburgh International Airport terminal modernization project continues to raise questions that, to date, appear to defy answers.

As the Pittsburgh Business Times reminds, site work that was supposed to begin April 23 did not. And the selling of bonds to finance the project, originally set for this month, has been delayed.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, is being blamed. The airline industry is in a financial morass. “Gutted” is the more appropriate descriptive we sometimes hear. And even with billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money, the industry’s financial wherewithal remains a huge question mark.

All that said, Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis says design work is about 60 percent complete and will continue.

“We feel strongly, as do our airline partners, that this is the right direction to go in, the right decision,” Cassotis told the Business Times last week. “The question is, when is the right time to borrow money? When is the right time to start construction? We’re not there yet. There hasn’t been a settling. We’re still in the middle of this.”

It might not even be “in the middle”; some folks are suggesting international air travel might not fully return until next year.

So, back to those nagging questions:

Given the economic environment, even in what’s hopefully, the post-coronavirus world, what’s the likelihood that such bonds can be sold? Talk about a tough, if non-existent, market.

Apparently, there’s still no lease agreement with the airlines for this new terminal. How prudent was such cart-before-the-horse economics? Not very, even in supposedly good times.

The terminal had a floating price tag. It originally was sold as a $1.1 billion project. Soon thereafter, officials called that number nothing better than a starting point.

If this thing ever is built, the pandemic could be used to, nod-nod, wink-wink, cover some of the cost escalations. If it’s not built, the pandemic will be blamed just the same.

But this project, from the outset, appears to have been conceived – then partially designed – on a wing and a prayer. That’s no way to run an airport.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).