Saturday, March 22, 2008

Return of the Spine Line?

It's baaack! Penn PIRG, the Sierra Club, the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, the SEIU, and a gaggle of politicians want to revive the Spine Line: the semi-mythical light rail line between Downtown and Oakland.

In the years since this project went down the tubes, we've seen traffic congestion and gas prices climbing into the stratosphere, not to mention the number of people working and studying in Oakland at the ever-metastasizing UPMC, Pitt and CMU. If it had been built, the Spine Line would have been up and running by now, helping to relieve Oakland's infamous congestion and parking problems.

The whole Spine Line saga parallels the Star Wars saga:
  • Spine Line: The Prequels. Trolleys and the PatTrain take the same route to oblivion as the Jedi, with the ill-fated Skybus serving as a sideshow distraction like the pod race. A new order of limited light rail for downtown and the privileged southern suburbs emerges.
  • Spine Line: A New Hope. Light rail links are proposed for the North Side and Oakland. Millions of dollars are spent in studies and route planning. Hope rises to the point where people start squabbling over whether the Spine Line should go through the Hill District or along Second Avenue.
  • Spine Line: The County Commissioners Strike Back. The Three Stooges, er, Allegheny County Commissioners (Bob Cranmer, Larry Dunn and Mike Dawida), politicians whose antics not only sealed their own doom but torpedoed the entire concept of the county commissioner, cancel the Spine Line and the North Side connector. The Connector was later restored, but only for serving the stadiums, apparently on the theory that suburbanites can't walk across a bridge to go to football and baseball games. It doesn't go to places where people actually live (the rest of the North Side) or go to school (CCAC).
  • Spine Line: Return of the Spine Line. Now, years later, someone has finally decided that it's better late than never: the Spine Line should be built.
How this is going to happen is another story. There's almost certainly no money for it right now, not even for redoing the necessary studies. County Executive Dan Onoroto says that the Port Authority shouldn't build it until it gets its financial house in order, a prospect that seems as remote as that galaxy far, far away.

Perhaps, like the fabled Star Wars sequels, the sequel to the Spine Line saga will live only in the imaginations of public transit riders and everyone who's ever been stuck in traffic while trying to get to Oakland. But maybe, just maybe, this project will be dusted off and begun anew. Maybe the next president will decide to jump-start the economy by blowing some of our tax money on infrastructure instead of flushing it down the rathole in Iraq. Maybe $4.50/gallon gas will be the kick in the pants that we need to get behind alternatives to the car. Maybe our local leaders will finally support transportation projects that don't involve ripping up great swaths of Pittsburgh to make way for more cars. Maybe one day, I'll take the 91A into town, hop into a light rail car, and be whisked on the new Spine Line to Oakland and beyond. It may be a doomed dream, but someone just cranked up its life support.

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