Big Transit rides again

Worth A Look, Housing Affordability, Frontier Centre

Two Fridays ago the folks responsible for the Pittsburgh region’s collection of mass transit boondoggles and inadequate highways uncorked another mega transportation/planning study.

Ignored and unread by the tax-paying masses, as these dangerous things always are, it’s called “A Regional Strategic Vision for Public Transportation Serving Southwestern Pennsylvania” — “20/20 Transit Vision” for short.

A joint production of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Port Authority and the Heinz Foundation, “20/20 TV” aims to integrate an expanded public transportation system with economic development across a 10 county region.

Nearly everything about the 147-page report (stored at is wrong. It cost $2 million. It took years to complete. Its executive “summary” is 23 pages long. Its big promise — that economic growth will be achieved by mixing more transit (i.e., deploying more half-empty buses) with the principles of “Smart Growth” — is bogus. Smart Growth sounds wise. But it really means “no growth — and we hate cars.” It’s basically a planning tool used by the anti-sprawl, anti-car crowd to create more densely populated and more public transit-friendly communities.

How is Smart Growth implemented? By following plans like “20/20 TV,” which urge local governments to control land use and economic development patterns with zoning and things like urban growth boundaries.

But Smart Growth, which inevitably drives up housing prices and creates traffic congestion, is the last thing Pittsburgh should mess with, says transit consultant and Heritage Foundation scholar Wendell Cox, who just wrote a study of housing affordability in 100 markets in six countries.

Pittsburgh’s enviable rank among the top five would be jeopardized by Smart Growth’s strangling regulations, which Cox says have made housing in cities like L.A., San Francisco and Portland, Ore., impossible to afford for the poor and middle class.

Cox has come to accept the public transit sector’s wasteful spending. “But the real damage,” he says, “is Smart Growth — taking away housing affordability for young people and minorities.”

As for “20/20 TV’s” claims that expanded public transportation will spur economic growth in the region, it’s a lie Big Transit never gets tired of telling.

Unless you count park-and-ride lots or gargantuan three-fourths-empty $24 million parking garages, evidence of economic development along Pittsburgh’s transit lines is impossible to detect.

That doesn’t surprise Joel Kotkin, arguably the country’s greatest guru of urban economic development. He can think of no city in the country where transit expansion has spurred genuine economic development, he told me Wednesday from Salinas, Calif.

“Transit developments don’t create jobs, obviously. They don’t create economic wealth, per se. Transit doesn’t create the demand. There’s got to be a demand for it. Transit developments should be there to serve the needs of businesses and people.”

When told planners here are toying with Smart Growth, Kotkin quipped, “Why are they worried about Smart Growth? You should be worried about no growth. It’s like worrying about the sex drive of a cadaver. Haven’t they seen the region’s job and population numbers?”

Of course they have. But what do today’s facts matter to Big Transit when there’s a bright future to be planned?

Bill Steigerwald is the Trib’s associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: