PWSA

Irvine Sidewalk Repairs Receive Funding

Construction Projected for Summer 2022

Long-needed sidewalk construction on Irvine Street between Hazelwood and Greenfield Avenues got more attention recently when updates to the project’s Engage PGH webpage raised questions about funding.

Although the fact sheet linked from the webpage stated “this project is only funded for design. DOMI [Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Transportation] is investigating potential sources for construction funds…,” construction is funded and slated to begin in June.

DOMI’s chief engineer Eric Setzler said the project received a grant of $120,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, plus $1 million in funding from the $335 million Pittsburgh received as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Mr. Setzler reported that the Irvine Street project mainly consists of sidewalk and curb replacements with “updated ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant] ramps at the intersections.”

“We would like to get as much curb reveal as possible,” he said, referring to the height of a curb that helps provide separation from the road. As layers of asphalt are added to a road over time, its level rises closer to the adjacent sidewalk. Other Irvine Street improvements include adjusting drainage from the sidewalks and adding a small retaining wall to “hold the slope back”—especially near the Greenfield Avenue end of Irvine Street. The area currently has rock-filled wire cages called gabion baskets.

Mr. Setzler added that the project is “on a good track,” with design scheduled to wrap up by late January.

Run resident Barb Warwick noticed the outdated fact sheet and commented on the page, along with several other community members, calling for construction funds to be taken from the budget of the unpopular Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC).

“$12 million is a lot of money and it’s just sitting there in DOMI’s coffers,” Ms. Warwick said, referring to the estimated MOC budget. “Now that everyone is finally acknowledging how misguided DOMI’s plan to build a shuttle road through Schenley Park really was, we can start using that money for mobility improvements the people of Pittsburgh actually need.”

Regarding the MOC budget, Mr. Setzler said, “I am seeing about $8 million [of City funds], not counting anything from PWSA [Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority].” He mentioned the $4 million difference had been redirected in the 2021 budget through an amendment introduced by District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor. PWSA has a budget of more than $42 million to complete a stormwater project on the same land as the MOC.

The MOC, slated to be put on hold by incoming Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey, proposed connecting Oakland university campuses and the Hazelwood Green development through the park’s Junction Hollow section and two adjacent neighborhoods—The Run and Panther Hollow. Affected communities including The Run, Panther Hollow, Greenfield, South Oakland, and Hazelwood created their own plan for how MOC funds should be spent instead: Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS).

The ARP funding arises from controversy as well. When it was announced in July 2021, Mayor Bill Peduto drew criticism from constituents who said he needlessly rushed to set a major spending agenda that prioritized infrastructure above mitigating COVID-19-related harms, such as evictions.

Anna Tang, a community organizer with BikePGH, received an email alert about the page update on Dec. 3; she forwarded it to her contacts in the Greenfield/Hazelwood area. “It’s my job to let the public know about this stuff,” Ms. Tang said, speaking as a citizen familiar with City websites rather than as a representative of BikePGH.

“This is an important corridor for all modes of transportation,” Ms. Tang remarked, “and it seems like the most vulnerable users are almost always last to get the infrastructure attention they need. [The sidewalk repairs] couldn’t come soon enough.”

“To be 100% honest, there’s not a whole lot of things to provide feedback on,” Mr. Setzler said of the project’s Engage PGH webpage. “But we still want to put it out there and let people see it.”

Although other city departments have been sharing their projects on Engage PGH for longer, “DOMI is catching up,” Mr. Setzler added. “Going forward [Engage PGH] will be our main source for sharing project information. In general, projects will still have outreach to community groups and public meetings”—virtual or in person.

As of Dec. 14, the project page had an updated fact sheet and a new “virtual public plans display.” The display features maps and a schedule that projects construction will take seven months. In addition, a new feedback form was placed on the page above the existing 140-character comment field. You can also create an Egage PGH account to receive email alerts about upcoming projects in areas you choose from a list.

PWSA Fields Questions on Stormwater Project Delays

On Oct. 19, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) held a meeting via Zoom to update the public on its Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. The project, announced in 2017 as a way to address severe flooding in the Four Mile Run neighborhood (The Run), has come under fire from skeptics who say it is designed around the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) plan. The MOC, announced in 2015, calls for building a road for university shuttles on the same land as the stormwater project. During the Q&A period after their presentation, PWSA officials made several false statements related to the MOC.

Shuttle road more integral to design than previously shared

Asked if PWSA is providing space in its stormwater plan for the MOC, Mallory Griffin of construction firm JMT (which is involved in the PWSA project) answered no. Yet PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe asserted that removing the MOC from the watershed plan would require PWSA to start over, which would cause significant delay and cost millions of dollars in changes.

“PWSA has always said the stormwater project will still move forward whether the trail is there or not,” Mr. Igwe explained. “But what we never said was how much additional cost and time would be required if the trail isn’t there… To suddenly shut down one piece of that project, take it off the table, and then ask us to do a project, the first thing that’s going to happen is now we have to redesign the project to take that Mon-Oakland [Connector] out of the equation.”

The public has been told repeatedly at public meetings that the watershed plan and MOC are “two separate projects.” PWSA’s own notes from its Sept. 2020 public meeting on the stormwater project state:

“We are going to do the stormwater project no matter what. If the roadway stopped being planned, we would have to amend our permit, which would result in a paperwork review for [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP)] and some timing changes, but we would still do our project. For the stormwater project, the money is committed, the PWSA board has approved it, the design is essentially complete, and we are moving forward with it.”

In several earlier public meetings, former stormwater project manager and current PWSA Board Chair Alex Sciulli had assured residents that the stormwater project takes precedence and that removing the MOC would not cause a significant delay because they are two separate projects.

New mayor, MOC opposition portrayed as obstacles

Ms. Griffin said that the PWSA hopes to have the permit approved by this winter, but warned of consequences if the MOC is removed as residents have been requesting for years. Slide 21 of PWSA’s presentation reads, in part: “If the new City Administration changes or removes the Mon-Oakland trail design, permitting will need to start over causing significant delay.”

Outgoing mayor Bill Peduto introduced the MOC plan to advance university and foundation goals. Mayor Peduto became Pittsburgh’s first incumbent mayor to be unseated since 1933. Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, by contrast, has clearly stated that he opposes the MOC. According to his campaign website, “Ed will stop the buildout of Mon-Oakland connector and prevent the construction of other privatized or quasi-privatized mass transit systems designed to support luxury development at the expense of existing residential communities.”

Community members at the meeting reminded PWSA of this, but Mr. Igwe said, “Up until that is done officially, all we’re really dealing with is people giving us their ideas and opinions on where they stand, and until someone puts something in writing formally that says it’s from the office of the people who can make the decision, that’s where we have to assume the project is going until it’s absolutely clear that it will not.”

Run residents have suffered a total of 10 major 25- to 75-year flood events in the last 15 years. They say a 10-year flood event plan (per PWSA’s current design parameters) is dangerously inadequate and that addressing floods must be prioritized. Every flood in The Run is an illegal combined sewer overflow that contains raw sewage—not merely stormwater runoff—which independent stormwater management consultants have labeled a public health and safety crisis.

Budget numbers continue to fluctuate

PWSA will spend $42.65 million on the stormwater project, according to their latest presentation. In a June 2020 meeting, another public presentation revealed that only about $14 million is going directly to flood relief in The Run. Asked why, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded in an email on Aug. 24, 2020, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

Excerpt from Nov. 10 PWSA letter in response to resident statement at Oct. 22 PWSA board meeting

Subsequent presentations between then and now have added items that were not previously considered part of the “core” project in the Junction Hollow section of Schenley Park. It is unclear whether the money set aside for opportunities to collaborate with the universities has been diverted to these new items, including “Construction Management / Inspection” (which presumably was always needed to complete the project).

In a letter responding to a resident’s statement at PWSA’s Oct. 22 board meeting, Mr. Igwe included the information from the budget slide and said the budget “does not contain $26 million ‘being held back for future projects.’”

Good news break: Sidewalks restored

The Oct. 19 presentation included photos of sidewalks in The Run that were dug up in the process of moving gas lines in advance of the stormwater project. One community member commented that the strip of rocks filling the trench down the middle of the sidewalk looked like “a tripping hazard.” A Run resident said they had been told the sidewalks would not be replaced until after the stormwater project is completed.

Ms. Griffin said the sidewalks were “100% in Peoples’ scope to replace” and pledged to “follow up with them tomorrow first thing to see what their schedule is for replacing the sidewalks.”

About two weeks after the meeting, construction crews returned to The Run. As of Nov. 12, they were putting finishing touches on the new sidewalks.

PA DEP concerns downplayed

PWSA received a technical deficiency letter from PA DEP dated May 27, 2021, in response to their permit application filed for the project in August 2020. Ms. Griffin and Mr. Igwe both mischaracterized this letter during the Q&A session, stating that the deficiencies identified were unrelated to the MOC. Ms. Griffin said that in a subsequent PA DEP letter “they had no questions on the trail’s impact to the flooding.” This point is debatable, but PA DEP’s concerns in the May 27 letter regarding the MOC are not incidental. Of 35 items listed in the 8-page letter, 13 specifically mention the MOC. For example, environmental comment 26 refers to additional permit requirements associated with the MOC:

Since PWSA is the applicant, will PWSA be responsible for the operation and maintenance of this section of DOMI’s project? Alternately, please consult with DEP, regarding additional permit requirements, if PWSA will not own or have primary responsibility for this section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project.”

On Oct. 29, PA DEP sent PWSA a second technical deficiency letter. They identified remaining “significant technical deficiencies” and requested a meeting with PWSA to discuss and explain them. Comment 17 in this second letter asks PWSA to “confirm that the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project is the same as the DOMI trail” and clarify that the full scope of the project is shown in a drawing called the “Boundary Street Concept North of Junction Hollow.”

“If there are additional components and/or sections of the overall DOMI Trail/Mon-Oakland Mobility Project,” the comment continued, “please note that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.”

After the Oct. 19 meeting and before receiving word of the second letter, residents asked the PA DEP to delay their decision to approve or reject the dual permit until at least February 2022.

PWSA Pushes Ahead on Four Mile Run Stormwater Project Without Permit

Despite receiving a Technical Deficiency Letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) in response to their dual permit application for the problematic Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road and Four Mile Run Stormwater Project, PWSA shows no sign of reconsidering its plans. The current stormwater project is inadequate to address the flooding issues, in part because it was designed around the MOC. On top of that, existing flood protection benchmarks do not account for worsening conditions caused by overdevelopment and climate change.

May 27: The PA DEP sent the Technical Deficiency Letter. Its engineering and environmental comments contained numerous references to the MOC and requests for clarification on its impacts. Here is a small sampling of problems from the 8-page letter.

Engineering comment 5d: Was the area as a result of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure proposed trail and road incorporated into the flood analysis inundation limits study for proposed conditions. Provide evidence that the impervious area will not contribute additional flow increasing water surface elevations detailed in Figure 01 & Figure 02 of Project 2018-GI-102-0.

Environmental comment 25: Per Module S1, in the EA, “The purpose of the Project is to manageand/or remove direct stream inflow to the existing CSS within the Junction Hollow valley of Schenley Park and to improve the CSS system from Junction Hollow to the Monongahela River, by repair, replacement, and/or separation of the CSS and stormwater lines. The goals and benefits of the Project are to reduce CSOs; reduce flood risks and basement backups; reduce sediment transport; and leverage resources for regional benefit, including align with the Parks Master Plan.” Describe the relationship between PWSA’s project and the City of Pittsburgh’s project, in terms of the project purpose.

Environmental comment 26: The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) is identified as the applicant, on the application form; however, the Project Description identifies the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project as a City of Pittsburgh project, led by the City’s Dept. of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). Since PWSA is the applicant, will PWSA be responsible for the operation and maintenance of this section of DOMI’s project? Alternately, please consult with DEP, regarding additional permit requirements, if PWSA will not own or have primary responsibility for this section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project.

Environmental comment 29: Since this application only includes a section of DOMI’s Mon-Oakland Mobility Project, identify and describe, to the extent possible, any and all potential impacts to aquatic resources, including watercourses, floodways, floodplains and bodies of water, from the overall Mon-Oakland Mobility Project. Please note that based on your response to this item, that a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment may be requested.

The letter stated that PWSA had 60 days to respond to these comments, or the application would be considered withdrawn. The deadline was July 27.

May 28: At the monthly PWSA board meeting Ziggy Edwards of The Run urged the PWSA to create a model for the stormwater project that does not include the MOC. She also asked for a report PWSA commissioned from ms Consultants that provides great detail on the Four Mile Run watershed and was funded with ratepayer dollars.

June 3: PWSA chief of project management Alex Sciulli denied Ms. Edwards’ request for the report. Regarding the dual permit application, Mr. Sciulli said he “asked staff to prepare a response to the PA DEP letter and to provide additional clarification regarding the stormwater impact of the proposed MOC, including the specifics of the ms Consultants report and previous modeling.” He added, “At the appropriate time, we will be happy to share and discuss our response to your inquiries.”

Mr. Sciulli did not clarify how PWSA would be able to address in two months the fundamental shortcomings identified by PA DEP.

June 13: Intense storms caused flash flooding in The Run that totaled several cars, damaged a garage, and caused sewage backups in basements.

June 25: At the monthly PWSA board meeting, several Run residents spoke and/or submitted statements regarding the June 13 flood. Ms. Edwards again implored the PWSA to come up with a plan to address flooding that is not designed around and hindered by the MOC.

“We need answers on how much better PWSA could address the combined sewer overflows without [the road]. These answers have life-or-death importance to The Run,” she said.

Ray Gerard of lower Greenfield recounted the flood’s aftermath in his statement. “The City again neglected to show up and remove inches of leftover fecal matter on the streets, sidewalks and limited community green space. The neighborhood literally smelled like [$#!*] for days. It’s understood that there are other areas of the city that suffered damage and flooding, but that was runoff storm-water, not raw sewage… Residents and their children are forced to breathe this toxic air in for days. Our local officials continue to ignore, at great risk, the lives and health of Run residents.”

July 9: PWSA senior group manager Tony Igwe sent a letter to Run residents informing them that although “the plans for the stormwater project are being reviewed by the [PA DEP] and we cannot move forward with construction [on the stormwater project] until a permit is issued … People’s Natural Gas (PNG) will begin construction to replace existing gas lines along Saline Street, Alexis Street, Four Mile Run Road, and Boundary Street.” The letter included a tiny image of a map with illegible text (see image above).

Stay tuned for updates on PWSA’s response to the Technical Deficiency Letter and whether PNG’s planned construction lacks necessary permits.

55M More Reasons to Defund the Mon-Oakland Connector

The COVID-19 emergency has shone a harsh light on Pittsburgh’s funding priorities. One glaring example is the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC), a controversial luxury microtransit project that primarily serves the Hazelwood Green development and has earned distrust from residents of affected communities.

The foundations that own Hazelwood Green imagine it as a second campus for CMU and Pitt. In a 2009 report, the Remaking Cities Institute of Carnegie Mellon University called a dedicated connection between Oakland and Hazelwood “the singular most important gesture that will ensure the success of the ALMONO site’s redevelopment.” (emphasis in original)

“What was problematic before the pandemic became unconscionable in this climate,” said Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “Funding this project would mean that other critical needs aren’t being met right now.”

Pittsburgh, like many cities, was hit hard. “Our tax revenues cratered, and there is still no clear path forward to replace them,” Mayor Bill Peduto stated in his 2021 budget speech. Pittsburgh faced a $55 million operating budget deficit at the close of 2020, and is depending on federal aid to avoid $25.6 million in personnel cuts starting in July 2021. About 634 city employees stand to lose their jobs.

A unanimously-approved budget amendment proposed by Councilman Corey O’Connor, whose district includes two MOC-affected communities, moved $4.15 million from the MOC. Those funds made up the 2021 budget for the MOC. They were redirected to the Housing Opportunity Fund (this citywide program received $1.9 million—$750,000 of which is earmarked for the Flats on Forward development in Squirrel Hill, leaving a little over half for Pittsburghers struggling to stay in existing housing), support for small businesses, and infrastructure improvements in Hazelwood.

Yet plans move forward to build the MOC shuttle road through Schenley Park and adjacent neighborhoods. Almono Partners spokesperson David Caliguiri said the foundations “believe the Mon-Oakland Connector remains a critical economic development effort for the City of Pittsburgh and the entire region” and are committed to funding the shuttle service. MOC may have lost 2021 funds from its total price tag of $23 million, but it’s still flush with an unknown portion of $14.5 million already granted in the 2018 and 2019 budgets.

The MOC has a long, shady history (its most recent chapter began with a fraudulent grant application to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development) and continues to function as a magic-bag project with components and costs that morph according to justifications needed for it at any given time. For example, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) claimed in a January 2020 memo that Irvine St./Second Ave. sidewalk repairs in Hazelwood—a key component of the community-generated Our Money, Our Solutions alternative plan—was always part of the MOC. By October, DOMI’s commitment to fund those repairs had vanished from the MOC budget.

For some neighborhoods—especially Panther Hollow and The Run—harm from the MOC goes beyond diverting limited resources. Two groups of residents in The Run are at risk of being displaced by the shuttle road: those who live near Swinburne Bridge, which DOMI has decided to replace rather than repair so the bridge can be widened for a dedicated MOC shuttle lane; and those who live in flood-prone areas near Big Jim’s.

The first group has already received letters from DOMI implying the City may use eminent domain to take property for the bridge replacement. The second group is some or all of the “affected properties” listed in PWSA documents concerning their Four Mile Run Stormwater Project. These internal documents, obtained through Right-to-Know requests, also reveal that the stormwater project was designed around the MOC and will not adequately protect people’s homes. One proposed solution involves a “discussion regarding property acquisition and other discussions that will not be widely popular.” The stormwater project, for which the PWSA secured $40 million, was billed as a solution to The Run’s flooding problem. But less than half of those funds are being spent on stormwater work in Schenley Park. According to PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

Besides forcing families out—some of whom have lived in The Run for three generations—the legally questionable use of eminent domain to serve a development project also removes affected properties from the tax rolls. About 40% of land in Pittsburgh is already tax-exempt because the government, universities, and other non-profits own it.

A lack of accountability and transparency surrounding the MOC has allowed DOMI to plan at will behind a screen of public-facing gestures since the department’s inception in 2017. But signs point to a reckoning for the MOC. According to the TransitCenter organization, “PPT is working with the city auditor to assess options for formally moving the money, and to make recommendations about how that money should be spent.”

In past years, City officials have answered public calls to defund the MOC by saying those capital budget funds can’t be applied to other areas of need like the operating budget. This position becomes harder to maintain now that $1.9 million has been moved from the MOC to the Housing Opportunity Fund, decidedly not part of the capital budget.

There is no shortage of ways Pittsburgh could reallocate $14.5 million to meet critical needs of residents. Keeping those funds in reserve for an unpopular, top-down project like the MOC is a disgrace in today’s austere climate.

8 Urgent Questions for PWSA Board of Directors Re. Stormwater Project

On February 26, 2021, Ziggy Edwards of The Run addressed PWSA’s board of directors at their monthly meeting. She brought concerns from her neighborhood that the design and implementation of PWSA’s Four Mile Run (4MR) Stormwater Project suffers from skewed priorities. The project, which will include major construction on the only road into The Run, focuses on accommodating the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) rather than fixing severe flooding.

The following questions, which PWSA also received via email, are based on information in the Right-to-Know (RTK) request documents we have received so far and independent expert analysis of the plan submitted with the permit application to the PA Department of Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

1. Why did the Heinz Endowments pay Howard Neukrug (past Philadelphia Water Commissioner) to review the PWSA stormwater project? (source: PWSA/CEC 4MR Weekly Meeting Minutes, April 16, 2019)

2. How much of the $40 million for the PWSA stormwater project did not come from the Heinz Endowments and/or other foundations that own the Hazelwood Green development?

3. How can the three new PWSA board members, who all have ties to entities with vested interests in the Hazelwood Green (HG) development, oversee the stormwater project in a fair and impartial manner that doesn’t benefit HG at the expense of Schenley Park and residents in The Run? For that matter, how can the other board members be fair and impartial in this project when they were all directly nominated by Mayor Peduto (a longtime proponent of the MOC)?

4. As you may know, the proposed MOC adds at least 0.80 acres (34,850 square feet) of paving to Junction Hollow. With the types of storms Pittsburgh has had in the past 10 years, a year with 50 inches of rain would generate an additional 1 million+ gallons of runoff to The Run. Why does the plan in the permit application propose to pollute this stormwater runoff by directing it from the MOC to the existing combined sewer system and not to the new stormwater network that flows directly to the river?

5. Did any consultant not funded by HG owners evaluate the impact of this stormwater project design on The Run? What did the consultants say about the absence of stormwater inlets of pipes along the proposed MOC road? What did they say about the absence of stormwater runoff from the road to the daylighted stream?

6. Is it true that the PWSA stormwater project’s construction plan calls for 4MR Field across Alexis Street from Big Jim’s to be used as a staging area for construction equipment and materials?

7. Because the “Parkway side” of the 4MR watershed is excluded from PWSA’s stormwater project, residents of The Run are still likely to see stormwater arrive in our neighborhood from that side of 4MR—even after this highly disruptive project is completed. Any flood water that enters the combined sewer network above The Run will still be in the combined sewer pipes running under the neighborhood. Therefore, if the volume of stormwater entering the combined sewer pipes above The Run is greater than those combined sewer pipes can handle, we are still likely to see raw sewage come to the surface from the remaining combined sewer inlets and/or manholes. Why is none of the $41 million earmarked for this project, which was billed as a solution to flooding in The Run, being spent on remediating the “Parkway side” of 4MR?

8. Is the PWSA board of directors aware that PWSA was ordered by the Office of Open Records to complete a review and provide the rest of its documents responsive to our RTK request? The deadline was yesterday [February 25, 2021]. At 8:52 p.m. we received a link to a zip file with a password that doesn’t work. Will the board encourage PWSA Attorney Samuel Hornak to resolve this issue as quickly as possible, since PWSA effectively missed the deadline?

Suddenly Swinburne

Schenley Park, Swinburne Street. Why don't we have both?

Proposed shuttle expansion route threatens homes

Developers of the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) aren’t deterred by years of setbacks—including widespread community opposition and City Council passing a 2021 budget amendment that shifts funds away from building the new shuttle road through two Pittsburgh neighborhoods and Schenley Park. If anything, plans presented by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) and Almono Partners at their last public meeting show a stronger resolve to eliminate all obstacles in the MOC’s path.

Slide 11 maps the proposed phase 1 MOC route, which ends abruptly as it enters The Run from Schenley Park. Residents were left in the dark about the path of shuttles through their small neighborhood.

Slide 11 from October 2020 MOC meeting

Although this meeting marked the first time an Almono Partners representative was on hand to answer questions about the shuttle service they plan to run on the road, they did not show The Run in their presentation, either (see slide 37).

Slide 37 from October 2020 MOC meeting
Slide 37 from October 2020 MOC meeting
The slide refers to “trails” (plural) and “public streets” with no indication of which streets in The Run will be used.

The “Swinburne connector” (slide 22) climbs a landslide-prone hillside and merges with Swinburne Street for access to Swinburne Bridge. An FAQ on DOMI’s website says this additional road would “have a path width of 16 feet with 2-foot buffers on each side.” Longtime followers of the MOC debacle and Run residents find this phase 2 plan equally troubling for several reasons.

Slide 22 from October 2020 MOC meeting

For context, we revisit a January 2018 public meeting DOMI organized to “share the potential alternative routes” for the MOC. Run residents had no trust after learning of the plan from a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article touting an already-submitted grant application that turned out to be fraudulent. DOMI, created in 2017, claimed they were pushing the restart button on the MOC concept and seeking input from affected communities.

Michael Baker Corporation presented six routes at the meeting, including five community suggestions that left Schenley Park undisturbed. Attendees reported that the exercise seemed designed to herd them toward a conclusion that only the Schenley Park route could work. Alternatives included Swinburne Street.

DOMI director Karina Ricks later expressed a preference for the Swinburne route, but said it was not feasible because of landslides. Landslides have plagued Swinburne Street for decades; one in the 1980s caused damage in Junction Hollow that led the city to close Boundary Street to motorized vehicles. This section of Boundary Street eventually became a popular bike and pedestrian trail through Schenley Park that forms a critical link in the only car-free path between Oakland and downtown.

Given the ongoing landslides, MOC critics questioned Ricks when subsequent designs showed the inevitable Schenley Park shuttle route running along the hill beneath Swinburne Street. How could Swinburne be deemed unsuitable for small shuttles yet frequently accommodate cars, trucks, UPMC shuttles, emergency vehicles, and school buses? And since Swinburne must be stabilized to prevent a collapse onto the proposed road, why not make Swinburne the route instead of spending millions of additional taxpayer dollars to build a new road?

Ricks responded via email, “The mobility path is to be an exclusive pathway suitable for both light shuttles and other e-powered vehicles such as e-bikes and, when categorized, e-scooters and other such vehicles as may evolve over time. There is insufficient width on Swineburn to provided this dedicated path. The street cannot be widened due to the fragile soil conditions.” (emphasis added)

Swinburne Street is 19.8 feet wide on average at its narrowest point. This is significantly wider than the proposed road, which forces cyclists into close contact with shuttles. But the width is still insufficient to accommodate both existing traffic and a new “exclusive pathway” that is “16 feet with 2-foot buffers on each side.” Whatever happened to the fragile soil conditions that prevented Swinburne Street from being widened?

According to minutes from a February 2019 meeting in Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, Ricks “noted the mobility trail can’t support future traffic loads so additional transportation alternatives would be needed for future traffic loads.” DOMI first proposed widening Swinburne Bridge to accommodate a dedicated lane for MOC shuttles in February 2018, presenting an option that featured a vehicle elevator from Four Mile Run Park below. Since then, serious consequences of the Swinburne route have come into view.

2018 DOMI illustration of vehicle elevator concept
Owners of houses near Swinburne Bridge received letters referencing eminent domain.

In August 2020, several Run residents who live near Swinburne Bridge received letters from DOMI implying they may lose their homes and businesses through eminent domain. The bridge has been neglected over many years and needs repair, so residents are required to allow surveyors on their property. Although repairs could be completed with no need to acquire properties, replacing Swinburne Bridge allows DOMI to widen it for the purpose of accommodating a dedicated MOC shuttle lane.

Ricks addressed resident concerns by stating, “It is a letter written by a lawyer and, unfortunately, they do reference the right of eminent domain. The City has absolutely no intention to take properties [as part of the bridge construction]. There is a possibility there might be some slivers that will be needed to create new footings for the bridge.”

Within a week of property owners receiving the letters, an AWK Consulting Engineers team arrived in The Run. One affected property owner noticed a surveyor working in Four Mile Run Field (The Run’s only community green space). Asked why he was so far from the bridge, the AWK employee said it was because they might need to widen the bridge.

Residents throughout The Run face harm from still more asphalt surfaces and permanent tree canopy loss upstream from their homes. Phase 1 of the MOC has already compromised the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority’s stormwater project in the area because accommodating the shuttle road is a design requirement. The stormwater project enjoys nearly universal public support because it was sold as a solution to The Run’s chronic flooding problem. But building the half-mile road through Schenley Park would generate about 295,000 gallons of additional runoff.

DOMI calls the MOC a “mobility trail” to avoid admitting it is a road—and if the MOC can be called a trail, its shuttles can run on any trail. An additional leg of the “Swinburne Connection” extends into the UPMC shuttle lot toward Second Avenue, which also happens to link to the Eliza Furnace Trail, another crucial part of Pittsburgh’s car-free network.

The MOC is a reiteration of an old idea. And it continues to shamble forward, powered by $14 million from previous budget years. The “Swinburne Connection” reveals MOC planners deceiving residents yet again, feinting away from an “alternative” route they planned to use in addition to rather than instead of Schenley Park. Communities should not be asked—let alone forced—to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a development project that serves private interests.

Letter to PA Dept. of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

image from permit application

Pennsylvania State DEP
Dana Drake, P.E.
dadrake@pa.gov
Phone: 412-442-4149 l Fax: 412-442-4242

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Mike Engelhardt
Michael.D.Engelhardt@usace.army.mil
Phone: 412-395-7141

Dear Ms. Drake and Mr. Engelhardt,

This open letter concerns the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) permit application for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Project:

Pennsylvania State DEP ID: E0205220-031
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Permit ID: CELRP-RG LRP-2018-774

As you know, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) is attempting to get their developer-driven Mon-Oakland Mobility Project (also known as the Mon-Oakland Connector, or MOC) approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) by attaching it to the PWSA stormwater project.

These two projects do not belong together.

Junction Coalition joins numerous individuals, community organizations, and public representatives in calling for the PA DEP and USACE to send this permit application back to PWSA with direction to remove the DOMI project from the application before the permit is approved.

The PWSA stormwater project enjoys nearly universal public support because it was sold as a solution to The Run’s chronic flooding problem. Run residents have been asking for help to fix the flooding for more than a decade. They were told the city lacked funds as the problem worsened from combined effects of climate change and unregulated overdevelopment of surrounding higher-elevation areas.

A 2009 flood, which PWSA labels a 75-year event, caused catastrophic damage: Cars floated down the streets in 6+ feet of water and sewage, while residents watched 70+ inches of the mix breach the first floor of their homes. 

A 25-year flood event in 2016 gained citywide attention when dramatic footage showed firefighters rescuing a resident and his son from the roof of their car. Later that year, Mayor Bill Peduto tasked PWSA with finding funds and developing a plan to fix the flooding.

A city-mandated 2017 survey of Run residents recorded unanimous demand for flood relief and a large majority of residents adamantly opposing the MOC.

The MOC is a road through a public park that debuted to Run residents in a 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article reporting the project as a done deal. It is a huge investment of taxpayer dollars in a private development plan that studies show does not meet Pittsburgh’s stated goals. Even DOMI director Karina Ricks admits that the MOC is not a transportation solution.

Instead of responding to residents’ legitimate concerns about the MOC, public employees twisted those concerns to seem like a baseless fear of progress. They tried to pit neighboring communities against each other. They filed fraudulent grant applications and applied for new grants without telling the public. They used public meetings for time-share marketing tactics rather than honest discussion, pretending to consider alternative routes for the shuttles before again settling on Schenley Park. They responded to Right-to-Know requests with claims of attorney-client privilege and a 7,185-page unsearchable PDF. They obscured and constantly changed details such as the route. And recently, several Run residents who live near one of the rejected alternative routes received letters from DOMI implying they may lose their homes and businesses through eminent domain.

These are not the actions of people with good intentions. If the MOC benefited those who live in the communities it affects, Mayor Peduto’s administration would not need to resort to duplicity and steamrolling. Furthermore, if Hazelwood Green’s powerful owners had no desire to annex Schenley Park and adjoining neighborhoods, they would drop their single-minded focus on getting shovels in the ground as soon as possible and instead support alternative plans such as Our Money, Our Solutions that offer more effective transportation for more people without causing the harms of MOC. 

Evidence shows that PWSA’s stormwater plan fails to prioritize the severe flooding issue and was designed to accommodate the MOC project. In their current 10-year flood event design, PWSA is following behind-closed-doors directions from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office. From their budget of $40 million, PWSA listed their flood mitigation efforts at $14 million. Asked where the remaining $26 million would be spent, PWSA responded via email, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed” and “provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities.” All PWSA Board members are nominated by Mayor Peduto, a longtime MOC proponent. PWSA’s plan includes several wish-list items of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a private entity on whose Board of Directors Mayor Peduto sits.

Expert consultants who have analyzed the current PWSA stormwater plan tell residents:

  • The proposed Mon-Oakland Connector project would most likely harm flood control—with an approximately 1/2-mile long (39,600 sq ft) impervious surface that eliminates 7 acres of old-growth tree canopy from Schenley Park. That amount of paving would generate about 295,000 gallons of runoff. Every acre of impervious surface generates 27,000 gallons of runoff for each inch of rain and Pittsburgh has seen a range from around 36-60 inches of rain over the last 10 years. PWSA has not proven that including the MOC will not harm flood control and has refused repeated requests for all engineering plans/documents of the PWSA stormwater project for independent analysis.
  • PWSA concentrates the stormwater work in the Schenley Park/Oakland end of the watershed, which would address only 1/3 of flooding in The Run. The rest comes from the opposite end of the watershed—the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield/376 Parkway end. Although it only accounts for 1/3 of the cause of flooding, the water/sewage mix from 5,200 structures above Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park feed into a 50-inch pipe that completely bypasses the Panther Hollow/Junction Hollow area of the watershed and feeds directly into The Run. PWSA’s plan does not address this specific connection and its effects on the neighborhood. 
  • PWSA’s plan would level approximately 7 acres of tree canopy to make room for the MOC project (beginning with 900 trees in the northern end), which will never be replaced in the space the roadway would commandeer. Furthermore, replacement saplings will not equal the water absorption of 7 acres of mature trees.
  • PWSA’s 10-year event plan “makes no sense”—unless it involves changing the floodplain and eliminating properties. RTK-obtained notes from a Mayor’s office meeting show PWSA Chief of Program Management Alex Sciulli stating, “More cost-effective options may be to change the floodplain and purchase the affected properties.” The “cost-effective” plan makes sense only within a larger plan to raze the neighborhood, forcing out residents and demolishing structures instead of the promised flood mitigation.

Flooding in The Run is a serious health and safety issue that cannot be ignored to serve developers’ financial interests. Therefore:

  • The dual permit application from PWSA and DOMI to the PA DEP and USACE must be denied, and PWSA must be directed to fully separate the two projects. 
  • The PWSA plan must prioritize the flooding issue instead of merely providing cover for an unwanted, unnecessary road that will permanently degrade Schenley Park and eventually erase two historic Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
  • PWSA must present a plan acceptable to residents whose lives and properties are at risk. Such a plan would include:
    • Documentation of studies done to assess the impact of MOC on the PWSA stormwater plan.
    • An Environmental Impact Study on the overall stormwater plan.
    • A Community Benefits Agreement guaranteeing compensation to residents who suffer damage from future flooding, as many residents currently cannot acquire flood insurance.

We are disappointed in your timing of the public comment period on this joint permit application to coincide with the holiday season. We hope you will give this important matter the time and impartial consideration it deserves.

Sincerely,  

 Junction Coalition

Who Is Bending PWSA Backward to Accommodate the Mon-Oakland Connector?

The answer may not surprise you

Per usual, a number of disturbing revelations floated to the surface at PWSA’s September 15 public meeting about the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project. Highlights include:

  • The plan calls for removing 900 trees from the Junction Hollow/Panther Hollow section of Schenley Park, according to Tim Nuttle of Civil & Environmental Consultants (CEC). Most of the trees slated for removal, Mr. Nuttle said, are located at the north end of Schenley Park in the Panther Hollow neighborhood. Presumably, this total does not include trees that would be cut down by the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) road through Schenley Park.
  • Part of the project attempts to address the large amounts of runoff from the Parkway East overpass that cuts through The Run, but despite talks between PWSA and PennDOT there is currently no plan for PennDOT to share any of the costs.
  • The MOC and the foot path have both been moved since the previous PWSA meeting on June 18 of this year. PWSA representatives said they heard that people didn’t want the walking trail right next to the MOC, which is designed to accommodate motorized shuttles between Hazelwood Green and the university campuses in Oakland. The foot path, in the latest PWSA presentation, has been moved to the other side of the soccer field. The MOC has also changed course, but in the presentation a photo covered a critical turn in its path. Before reaching the southern entrance to Schenley Park, where they diverge at the soccer field, the two paths are still side by side. Twitter user @Bram_R recalled, “When [residents] asked about the safety of that, were told there’d be ‘a piece of wood or something’ separating [the MOC and foot path].”
  • PWSA has spent months telling concerned residents that no model of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project exists that excludes the MOC. But during this most recent meeting, PWSA representatives divulged that such a model does exist. According to this new narrative, the MOC was added to the stormwater models after initial public meetings where residents expressed concerns about how a new asphalt road (and associated removal of trees) would affect the project’s ability to address the flooding issue in The Run.

    MOC opponents contend that the MOC—a development project designed to lure corporations to Hazelwood Green—should not take precedence over the stormwater project. The core project in Schenley Park has long been considered “technically challenging” even without incorporating a new road.

    PWSA continues to withhold the MOC-free model from residents, and did not use it in their chart where they showed a net benefit in flood control. The presentation implied that this positive result is because of MOC, rather than despite MOC. Without an MOC-free model, the road’s true impact on flood control cannot be measured.
  • Discussion of “BMPs” (best management practices) revealed that the BMPs in question were “swales,” or ditches, to hold runoff from the MOC road. These deep ditches are placed directly next to the youth soccer field.
  • After the June PWSA board meeting, PWSA executive director Will Pickering responded to resident concerns over undue influence over PWSA by Mayor William Peduto and the private interests that define his administration’s agenda. A resident had stated that all except one board member were nominated directly by Mayor Peduto. Mr. Pickering clarified via email, “Ms. [Margaret] Lanier’s initial term on the PWSA Board was prior to Mayor Peduto’s term(s) as Mayor, but all appointments to the PWSA board are nominated by the Mayor and approved by Council. Ms. Lanier’s most recent nomination was indeed put forward by Mayor Peduto.”

    At the September stormwater project meeting, PWSA Chief of Program Management Alex Sciulli elaborated that a committee formed by Mayor Peduto chose the latest round of PWSA board nominations. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the committee is “chaired by Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh chancellor emeritus and chair of the Institute of Politics. The other members…include Community College of Allegheny County President Quintin Bullock, former Regional Asset District Executive Director David Donahoe, Women for a Healthy Environment Executive Director Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis and Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant.”

    The Heinz Endowments is one of three foundations that comprise Almono Limited Partnership, which owns the vast majority of the Hazelwood Green site—the development of which MOC is intended to bolster.

    Mayor Peduto, a longtime proponent of MOC, faces an estimated $100 million budget shortfall this year because of COVID-19. The City’s capital budget includes $23 million for MOC over the next few years—$9 million for 2021 alone. Approximately $2 million has already been spent on “community outreach”—marketing efforts to convince residents of affected communities they should abandon efforts to stop the road from being built.

    Mayor Peduto’s chief of staff, Dan Gilman, tweeted on September 15: “Today, City Council approved the Mayor’s 3 appointees to the @pgh2o board. These three women – BJ Leber, Rosamaria Cristello, and Dr. Audrey Murrell are going to be tremendous leaders in helping PWSA continue to modernize and provide a safe and reliable water system.”

    When @Bram_R commented that “it’s going around that these 3 new board members came off a list given to the Mayor by Pitt & CMU, and that they’re ‘their’ appointees. W Almono nearby as well, [residents] have a lot of concerns that their neighborhood is being slated for gentrification,” Mr. Gilman responded, “This is completely untrue. The names came from suggestions by the PWSA Board Nominating Committee that was publicly announced and part of the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel.”

    The panel Mr. Gilman mentioned includes Jared Cohon, former president of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

    Twitter user @BarbWarwick2 replied to Mr. Gilman with background on the three new board members: “Looks like Ms. Cristello works at CMU and Dr. Murrell at Pitt. Ms. Leber is CEO at adagio health, which is associated with UPMC. All very accomplished women indeed, but the ‘eds and meds’ comment is not wrong. PWSA board could use at least one or two resident advocates, no?”

Asked why the PWSA’s June presentation accounted for only $14 million of the $40 million project budget, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded in an email, “The remaining funding can go towards future projects in the upper portions of the watershed, provide opportunities to collaborate with the universities and other community organizations on future stormwater projects, or revisit some of the original green infrastructure projects planned for Panther Hollow Stream and Phipps Run.” (emphasis added)

After decades of steadily worsening floods in The Run and avowals from city officials that they lacked funds to fix it, residents have every right to demand that the $40 million secured for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project addresses their dire public safety need rather than accommodating a project to benefit The Heinz Endowments, the University of Pittsburgh, CMU, and a handful of other private entities. Yet these very entities have been tasked with overseeing the PWSA and its execution of the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project.

You can view the PWSA’s June 18 presentation on their website, and PWSA has promised to post a recording of the September 15 meeting and accompanying presentation soon.

PWSA Delays Stormwater Project, Declines Request to Model Improvements Without Shuttle Roadway

On June 18, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) held a Zoom meeting to discuss the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project and its revised schedule. A May 18 email from the PWSA stated in part, “Additional modeling and design effort have caused a delay to the overall project construction schedule. We originally anticipated starting construction this fall, but it is now anticipated to begin in 2021.”

Chief of Program Management Alex Scuilli began the meeting by acknowledging that “people are waiting for stormwater relief.” He assured attendees, “We think we have the solution [and can provide] a level of storm protection that will be very good for residents.”

However, further discussion of the updated model revealed an apparent scaling back of protection: According to slide 17 of PWSA’s June 2020 presentation, “Designing for a 10-year event was determined to be a cost-effective solution for reduced flood risk.” Notes from a February 22, 2019, meeting at the mayor’s office (obtained via Right-to-Know request) recorded Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff Dan Gilman “wonder[ing] if instead of a 25-year storm, which is what current development designs for, should we be designing for a larger storm event.”

PWSA’s presentation calls out two previous floods in The Run: one 25-year event in 2011 and one 75-year event in 2009. It does not mention other events, such as a 2019 flood that included higher elevations in the neighborhood and a 2016 flood that trapped a resident and his son on the roof of their car.

Run residents have asked the PWSA Board to create a model for the Four Mile Run Stormwater Improvement project that excludes the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) road through Schenley Park. MOC opponents contend that the MOC—a development project designed to lure corporations to Hazelwood Green—should not take precedence over the stormwater project. The core project in Schenley Park has long been considered “technically challenging” even without incorporating a new road.

Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) director Karina Ricks commented, “We firmly support [PWSA’s] decision to take the time needed to ensure the massive stormwater investment we are making is the right one to best address the stormwater impacts that have affected The Run for so many years. The Mon-Oakland project will proceed concurrent with the PWSA green infrastructure project, thus our timeline is adjusted accordingly as well.”

Asked whether the PWSA has created a model without MOC or intends to do so, PWSA acting senior manager of public affairs Rebecca Zito responded, “The mobility project is a planned project and our model has taken into consideration that it would be constructed. Not including it would set false expectations and provide an unrealistic assessment for advancing the stormwater project. We appreciate that residents from the Run took the time to address the Board in March about this project. The Board heard your request to commission a model for the stormwater project without the mobility corridor project, unfortunately, we were not directed to do so.”

Five of PWSA’s six current board members were nominated by Mayor Peduto, a longtime proponent of MOC who faces an estimated $150+ million budget shortfall this year because of COVID-19. In contrast to PWSA’s stormwater project, which addresses a clear public safety issue and will be financed by the PWSA itself, the City-funded MOC project demonstrably fails to benefit residents in the neighborhoods it affects. By all appearances, Mr. Peduto’s priorities are the only reason the PWSA would view cancelation of the MOC as “an unrealistic assessment.” 

Contact the PWSA

412-255-2423
www.pgh2o.com/report-an-issue

Run Residents to PWSA Board: Create Model for Stormwater Plan Without MOC

On March 27, 2020, the Board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) convened its monthly board meeting via telephone conference line. The Board received comments from several residents of The Run, the neighborhood most directly affected by the PWSA’s 4-Mile Run Stormwater Improvement Plan. They asked the Board to create a model for the project that excludes the controversial Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) road through Schenley Park.

PWSA Chief of Program Management Alex Scuilli has stated on the record that no such models currently exist. MOC opponents have long contended that the MOC—a development project designed to lure corporations to Hazelwood Green—should not take precedence over the stormwater project, which addresses severe flooding in The Run as well as an EPA mandate to separate stormwater from sewage.

Despite its importance to public safety, the stormwater project is not expected to fix the flooding but only lessen it. Right-to-Know documents show Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff Dan Gilman admonishing the PWSA to “improve the messaging on this issue” to adjust residents’ expectations. The vast majority of runoff that floods The Run comes from Greenfield—not Schenley Park, where funding for the stormwater project has been directed. Yet the project was originally pitched to residents as a way to address the flooding issue. The “messaging” changed in early 2019—well into the engineering process. The core project in Schenley Park has long been considered “technically challenging” even without incorporating a new road.

It seems likely the $41 million stormwater project could be more effective if it weren’t required to accommodate the MOC. Multiple experts have told residents of affected neighborhoods that the MOC could hinder flood control. Recently, Pittsburghers for Public Transit worked with analysts to complete a cost-benefit study of expanded public transit versus MOC shuttles in affected neighborhoods—but some costs of the MOC fall outside the scope of that study, including harm to the stormwater project’s effectiveness and to Schenley Park itself. These costs must be examined at least as carefully as the costs of inefficient shuttle service.

There is a clear public need for the PWSA’s stormwater project, and a clear lack of need for the MOC. The MOC benefits developers, not residents, and exemplifies the “non-essential construction” Governor Wolf has halted during the COVID-19 crisis. It is more prudent than ever to develop alternative plans.

Contact the PWSA

412-255-2423
www.pgh2o.com/report-an-issue