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Pittsburgh bus rapid transit project may face empty federal well

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

 

Transportation Issues Daily has some not-so-good news for the Pittsburgh bus rapid transit project.

“Congress is increasingly unable to provide adequate funding for federally-approved larger-scale mass transit capital projects,” TID reports.

Just under $1.9 billion is available; the Federal Transit Administration has signed funding agreements for 17 projects for $14 billion and 12 projects in development are seeking $8.7 billion.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Highways and Transit subcommittee said:

“Given these demands on program funding, projects that have completed the applicable requirements of the New Starts program may face delays in securing grant agreements or receiving their full grant amounts.”

Pittsburgh BRT backers were hoping to apply for New Starts funding next fall.

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toysfortots

Port Authority will host its annual Toys for Tots drive in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday. New, unwrapped toys and cash donations will be collected from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. at Steel Plaza T Station, on the mezzanine level. Q92.9 FM will broadcast live from Steel Plaza during the toy drive. Those who donate a toy or cash will receive a complimentary cup of coffee from Crazy Mocha.

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Ohio’s General Assembly has expanded the state’s “move over” law that requires drivers to shift out of the adjacent lane when emergency vehicles are on the shoulder. The new law also requires drivers to move over for “construction, maintenance and public utilities commission vehicles that are parked on the roadside with flashing, oscillating or rotating lights.”

Pennsylvania’s move-over law applies to emergency responders, towing and recovery personnel and highway maintenance and construction workers.

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While we’re talking laws, Pennsylvania requires motorists to remove all snow or ice from vehicles. Quite a few drivers apparently still think it’s OK to carve a few portholes on the windows and hit the road. Unfortunately, the law provides for fines only if falling ice or snow causes a crash with serious injury or death.

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menatworkTraffic on Route 28 will be restricted to a single lane in both directions for the next two evenings. The restriction will be in place from East Ohio Street to about a quarter-mile south of the 31st Street Bridge starting at 8 p.m. today and Friday as work continues on the $15.4 million final phase of Route 28 construction. The restrictions will be lifted by 5 a.m. The outbound lane closure will be delayed on Friday until two hours after the end of the Penguins game.

Bull Creek Bridge No. 9 on Dawson Road in West Deer will reopen to traffic at 5 p.m. today. A rehabilitation project on two bridges began in mid-September. The second phase, rehabilitation of Bull Creek Bridge No. 6 on Thompson Road in Fawn, is expected to close that road in February.

Mobile signs are advertising a closure of Washington Boulevard in the city's Larimer section this weekend. The closure has been postponed.

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Why Toys for Tots deserves your support

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

toysfortotsThis is my 10th year working with the Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund, which raises money for the Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots program. Over that time I've come to regard Toys for Tots as one of the most efficient, effective and deserving charity campaigns out there. The labor of sorting and delivering thousands of toys to needy kids is done by the Marines and volunteers; the warehouse space is donated by Guardian Storage; toys are donated or bought at deep discounts; with virtually no overhead, each donated dollar is stretched a mile to help brighten the holidays for needy families like the Hendersons, whose story was told recently by PG staffer Ginny Kopas Joe. Read it here.

I've met countless families who were deeply grateful for the community's support to help them through difficult times. It's a great program and a tradition that goes back to 1947. We list all donors in the newspaper and hope you will join the effort. You can donate online by clicking here.

Thank you!

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Happy trails: two Montour expansion projects funded

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Two expansion projects on the Montour Trail have been funded with a state grant.

One will extend the trail into the Coraopolis business district, which should be a win for merchants and trail users. The other will connect the Library Viaduct over Route 88 with Pleasant Street in South Park Township.

Excerpts from the announcement by state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon:

The Montour Trail Council was awarded $313,300 to construct approximately 0.8 miles of trail, which will complete the mainline of the Montour Trail from Moon Township into downtown Coraopolis Borough. The completed Montour Junction trial segment will wind directly through a major Allegheny County recreation project, currently in development, and will ultimately provide a connection point for future trails extending along the Ohio River to the state line.

“Bringing the Montour Trail into a town full of services is of great benefit to trail users and to the businesses that they will visit,” said Ned Williams, Montour Trail Council representative. “Tying into a new Allegheny County park and to other future trail systems makes this project even more valuable to the public. We are most grateful to our partners for their strong support.”
 
South Park Township was awarded $243,000 to construct approximately 900 feet of the Montour Trail, which would connect the east end of the Library Viaduct to residential Pleasant Street. The Viaduct is scheduled to be rehabilitated for trail use this coming year.
 
“Completion of the Pleasant Street project will provide an important amenity for the neighborhood as well as a key intermodal connection to the Port Authority’s Library Station park-and-ride lot in South Park,” Smith said.
 
Williams added, “Over thirty five miles of the mainline of the Montour Trail is nearly finished, up to the Library Viaduct. This Pleasant Street section sets the stage for continuing the trail further east to connect with completed Montour sections, and to link with the Great Allegheny Passage trail to Washington, D.C. South Park Township is a great partner in trail development.”

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More than 9,700 volunteers from 35 counties across Pennsylvania canvassed their communities to remove 459,076 pounds of trash and debris from Pennsylvania’s waterways and coastal regions during the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup event.
 
From September through October, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful worked together with local groups and organizations to coordinate 385 events throughout the state. Volunteers in Pennsylvania documented the trash that was picked up and the “top five” types of trash found during the 2013 cleanup included: 17,344 cigarette butts; 4,062 food wrappers; 3,259    plastic beverage bottles; 3,011 plastic pieces; 2,018 plastic bottle caps. Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Allegheny CleanWays and the University of Pittsburgh led the state with 4,011 volunteers.

The good news, of course, is the volunteerism and improvement of our environment. The bad news is we’re pigs.
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PennDOT will host an open house to present plans and construction schedules for the $19 million Route 51-Route 88 intersection project, which has already begun. The meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday at St. Norbert Church meeting hall.

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subway

This is more of a minor nuisance than anything for Pittsburghers, but a federal tax break for transit riders is due to shrink starting Jan. 1 unless Congress acts. Currently, transit riders can pay for up to $245 per month in fares with pre-tax dollars and those who drive to work can do the same for their parking fees. Come Jan. 1, the parking allowance will increase to $250 per month, but if nothing is done, the transit benefit will go back to $130. That won't impact most Port Authority patrons in Zone 1 but will nick those who buy Zone 2 monthly passes for $146.25, as the reduced ceiling wouldn't cover all of their expense. Of course it's dumb to increase the incentive to drive vs. riding transit, but that's our Congress.

Here's a letter from several Pennsylvania congress members to the House leadership calling for a solution.

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menatworkRoute 88 will have lane restrictions until 3 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, weather permitting, near the Route 51 intersection during pavement work.

The Wabash Tunnel will be closed from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily next Monday through Friday for replacement of ventilation fans.

UPDATE -- The Washington Boulevard closure scheduled for Saturday in Larimer has been postponed.

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Are TV winter weather forecasts a snow job?

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

A meteorologist once told me that forecasting weather, especially winter storms, beyond the next 48 hours is largely guesswork.

Last week bore that out, when forecasters couldn’t get it right even after the snow began.

Weather forecasters rely on a variety of sophisticated computer models to predict what will happen. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is no model.

That hasn’t stopped all three TV chief meteorologists from peering across the vastness of winter and telling us exactly how much it will snow each month until the end of the season. These much-hyped Winter Weather Forecasts are likely forgotten by most viewers shortly after they air.

But people, we should never forget.

This is the first of what I hope will be periodic reviews of the accuracy of those forecasts.

We’re not off to a good start.

Jeff Verszyla of KDKA told us November would bring 2.2 inches of snow with near-normal temperatures, while WTAE’s Mike Harvey forecast 2.0 inches and temperatures a half-degree below normal.

The fizzle of last week’s storm spared both a blizzard of embarrassment: the actual monthly snow total was 9.3 inches and temperatures were a full 3.5 degrees below normal.

WPXI’s Stephen Cropper didn’t issue his Winter Weather Forecast until Nov. 25. After revealing the monthly snowfall totals we’ll be getting through March, Mr. Cropper transitioned to the shorter-term forecast of the pending storm, with repeated cautions that it was unpredictable and snowfall totals could fluctuate. Yes, he told us precisely how much snow we would get in December, January, February and March, then basically admitted he couldn’t be sure how much it would snow the next day.

Peering into their crystal balls, or maybe they were snow globes, the three produced widely divergent forecasts for December and for the winter season as a whole.

Mr. Verszyla says it will snow 4.4 inches this month with temperatures 5 degrees warmer than normal; Mr. Harvey says we’ll get 8 inches with temperatures a degree below normal; Mr. Cropper says 10 inches with “quick shots of cold air” (a bold call for December) but no specific temperature prediction.

For the season, Mr. Verszyla expects 32 inches, which is well below the seasonal average of about 42 inches. Mr. Harvey says we’ll get 48 inches. Mr. Cropper’s video report began with his assertion that 41.5 inches would fall from December through March; but he went on to give a month-by-month breakdown that added to 42 inches even.

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menatworkMobile signs advertise Route 28 road work “to begin 12-5” but PennDOT’s Steve Cowan said that’s when a contractor will begin mobilizing equipment for the next (and final) phase of the megaproject. The around-the-clock outbound lane closure will start again soon; no date has been finalized, he said.

Alternating one-way traffic will be in effect on Route 30 between Santiago and North Star roads in North Fayette from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through next Tuesday.

Brief lane closures will occur in the Fort Pitt Tunnels from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. today while crews put up signs.

Washington Boulevard will be closed all day Saturday from Negley Run Road to Frankstown Avenue during removal of loose concrete from the Larimer Avenue Bridge above. The work might extend into Sunday, according to Pittsburgh public works.

A huge improvement project at the intersection of Broughton, Brownsville and Curry Hollow roads in the South Hills has been completed, Allegheny County and PennDOT announced this afternoon. While the announcement claimed the project was finished ahead of schedule, our story at the start of the 2 1/2-year project said completion was projected for spring 2013, so we're assuming they finished ahead of a revised schedule.

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Gas tax hike? Relax, you won't feel a thing

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

gaspumpThe transportation funding legislation that appears headed for final passage in Harrisburg would raise the state’s gasoline tax for the first time since 1997.

Because the increase will be applied at the wholesale level, it will be next to impossible for drivers to know how much of an impact it has on pump prices. Much more powerful forces than taxation drive the pump price up and down, including the machinations of oil sheiks, production issues, weather and good old supply and demand.

In the last two years, with no changes in federal or state taxes, the average price of a gallon of gas in Pennsylvania has fluctuated by more than $1, according to Gasbuddy.com.

Assuming that wholesalers pass every last red cent of their tax increase on to consumers — and experts say that is far from certain — drivers on Jan. 1 would be paying 9.5 cents more per gallon. For a driver who travels 12,000 miles a year in a 24 mpg vehicle, that would add $47.50 to his or her annual gasoline cost, or less than a buck a week.

At the current per-gallon price, the tax increase is less than 3 percent. That’s less than 3 percent in tax increases over a 17-year span. If your boss made you work without a raise for 17 years, then handed you a 3 percent bump, you wouldn’t be turning cartwheels over his generosity.

But that’s what Pennsylvanians are doing for their employee, PennDOT.

Pennsylvania’s current tax of 32.3 cents is 15th-highest in the nation; assuming no other state raises taxes next year, Pennsylvania would rise to No. 5. That's hardly out of line for the state that is No. 1 in structurally deficient bridges.

Looking farther down the road, two more wholesale gas tax increases are scheduled: 9.7 cents per gallon on Jan. 1, 2015, and at least 8 cents (but maybe more) on Jan. 1, 2017. Small rollbacks will occur for 2016 and possibly for 2018.

Currently, the wholesale tax is applied only to the first $1.25 of the price of a gallon. The legislation slowly removes that cap between Jan. 1, 2014, and Jan. 1, 2017. After that, gasoline will be taxed at the full wholesale price, meaning taxes will rise and fall each year based on market changes.

The gas tax is the biggest driver in the transportation bill, which is projected to raise $2.3 billion a year for roads, bridges, public transit and other modes by 2018. That is just a bit less than the amount of money gambled away at Pennsylvania’s casinos during the last fiscal year.

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We don’t have the numbers yet, but Port Authority officials say their analysis of the transportation bill signals a long period of financial stability — at least five years and possibly a decade. We may even see some additional service on routes that have been overcrowded since the 2011 cuts. Oh, how we’ll miss those biennial financial distress calls.

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Friday will bring the 53rd annual Light Up Night festivities to Downtown Pittsburgh. Friday’s Post-Gazette will have a rundown of street closings, but we can summarize it here — if you are anywhere near Downtown in a motor vehicle after dark, there’s a good chance you’ll spend time in gridlock.

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menatworkJust in: PennDOT will open the new Route 28 ramps to the 31st Street Bridge at about 9 a.m. Monday. That end of the bridge has been closed since 2010 for construction of a grade-separated interchange.

From our PennDOT friends to the north: Traffic patterns returned to normal this week on westbound Interstate 80 in Jefferson County. The single-lane restrictions that were in place have been lifted between Exit 86 (Reynoldsville) and Exit 97 (Falls Creek). The project will resume in the spring.

Inbound Route 28 will be down to one lane from the former Millvale Industrial Park to East Ohio Street starting at 8 p.m. today. Restriction lifts by 6 a.m. Friday.

A reminder that the Pennsylvania Turnpike will be closed in both directions between Allegheny Valley and Butler Valley from 11:59 p.m. Saturday to 4 a.m. Sunday for bridge demolition.
 
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