shuttles

The Mystery of the Old MOC Funds

When Mayor Ed Gainey announced an end to the Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) shuttle road at the February 17 Greater Hazelwood community meeting, residents of affected communities applauded. They immediately requested basic improvements like safe street crossings, sidewalks and facilities for after-school programs. Officials offered no specific plans for redistributing MOC funds, but early reports focused on building a biking and walking trail that follows the same MOC route.

Five months after the MOC’s formal demise, as the bike/pedestrian trail project moves forward piece by piece, details on leftover MOC funds remain murky. 

When we contacted Emily Bourne, communications specialist for Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI), she said in a June 10 email that $6.7 million remains in the budget for the MOC, which she referred to as the Four Mile Run project.

“All of the funds are still in Four Mile Run named capital accounts,” Ms. Bourne wrote. “Any movement would require council action unless spent on something connected to the Four Mile Run project.”  

However, Pittsburgh’s 2021 capital budget reported the project had $7.7 million in “unexpended/unencumbered prior year funds.” This figure aligns with the one provided to us by DOMI’s chief engineer Eric Setzler in late 2021. He said in a phone call, “I am seeing about $8 million [of City funds].” 

Peering inside the magic bag

Some of the $1 million difference between the 2021 and 2022 figures can be explained by money that was diverted from the MOC budget.

In December 2020, City Council passed a budget amendment introduced by Councilman Corey O’Connor that moved $4.15 million out of the MOC. Those funds were divided among affordable housing programs, support for small businesses throughout Pittsburgh, and infrastructure improvements in Hazelwood. This should have left around $3.85 million in MOC funds.

But Ms. Bourne, when asked to confirm this, emailed that the diverted money was “not actual funds.”

“Had the budget been passed as introduced they would have been, but they were moved before the budget was adopted,” Ms. Bourne wrote. “There could have been other budget moves but nothing with actual obligated funds.”  

“The only transfer was from December 2021 when Council moved $575,000 from Mon-Oakland ‘Four Mile Run’ to Street Resurfacing,” she added.

Indeed, Councilman O’Connor did introduce a budget amendment to remove $575,000 from the MOC funds. Of those, $550,000 went to new lights for Bud Hammer Field in Greenfield and $25,000 went to repair steps around Burgwin Field in Hazelwood.

It is unclear how the Bud Hammer Field lights and Burgwin Field steps are related to street resurfacing, and where the $4.15 million in the 2020 budget amendment originated if not from MOC funds. Also unexplained is the $4 million shown in the 2021 capital budget as going back into the MOC for 2022. 

Asked to comment during a June 10 phone conversation, Councilman O’Connor said, “People at DOMI are not very intelligent. Whoever you were talking to does not know what they are talking about. We always make amendments before a budget is passed. Only the final draft of the budget matters.”

The 2022 capital budget contains no mention of the MOC. Councilman O’Connor explained this by saying the project “would not have to be listed in the capital budget if the funds have already been allocated,” and no new funding was being requested. 

About 7% of the $8 million in the fund last December is unaccounted for by our reckoning. This could be a calculation error due to rounding, or it might actually be missing. But the funds still exist and are being spent on lights and steps, at the very least.

Table showing known expenses or allocations and remaining balance calculated, compared against DOMI's reported MOC budget as of June 2022
Table showing known expenses or allocations and remaining balance calculated, compared against DOMI’s reported MOC budget as of June 2022

When will our money fund our solutions?

One fact has become plain over the past five months: The project and its funding will continue—minus Almono Partners’ proposed shuttles and the MOC name.

This slow-walked continuation of the project formerly known as the MOC raises concerns among members of MOC-affected communities. Residents and community organizations created Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS), an alternative plan listing needed improvements that cost less than the MOC’s original $23 million budget.

Some OMOS priorities have come to pass, such as weekend service on the 93 bus line and Second Avenue/Irvine Street sidewalk repairs in progress. But critical items—such as traffic-calming measures on Hazelwood Avenue and lower Greenfield Avenue and those discussed at the February 17 meeting with Mayor Gainey—remain unaddressed. Why is bike trail infrastructure being prioritized over needs like these? City parks already have a dedicated source of revenue from taxpayers, while neglect has destroyed existing infrastructure in these communities over decades.

“We said at the February 17 meeting that we are looking to put in a request for money for repairs and improvements for Burgwin [Recreation Building],” Councilman O’Connor said, explaining those funds would not come from the MOC budget.  

He added this is the first year City Council will have park tax funds to work with, and they have not yet finalized the process for distributing them.

Meanwhile, explorations into the mysteries of MOC funding continue. In a May 27 email responding to inquiries, City Controller Michael Lamb said his office will soon release their performance audit of several city departments. The audit included a review of the MOC that helped inform Mayor Gainey’s decision to end the project.

The Secret of the Shuttle Route

It seems like a question with a simple, straightforward answer: Where does the proposed MOC shuttle go after it leaves Schenley Park and enters The Run?

Junction Coalition sought the answer by emailing director Karina Ricks and project manager Michael Panzitta of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI). We got more (in terms of material for this post) and less (in terms of the answer itself) than we imagined in our wildest dreams.
***

February 22, 2021

Good Afternoon Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

We are writing to request a detailed, clearly marked map of the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector route between the Schenley Park soccer field (by the railroad overpass) and Saline St. at Greenfield Ave. This information is missing from the presentation at your October 2020 public meetings, which you described as the “final” opportunity for public input.

In slide 11, the green line representing the proposed route ends abruptly as it enters The Run from Schenley Park. Slide 37, presented by a representative of Almono Partners, shows a vague illustration that includes an almost uniformly straight line through The Run as if there are no streets, buildings, or recreation areas in the path of the proposed route.

Confusion on the topic of MOC’s exact route occurred at a recent community meeting. One attendee insisted the route had been changed and now will not enter the neighborhood, but instead follow the “Swinburne Connection” route shown in slide 22 of your presentation.

Please provide clarification on this issue and eliminate the confusion by sending DOMI’s proposed route per the specifications above. As public servants, you have an obligation to be transparent concerning DOMI projects and their effects (potential or otherwise) on Pittsburgh residents. Residents have a right to full and complete knowledge of all plans for their communities.

Sincerely,

Junction Coalition
***

March 10, 2021

Hello Again Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

More than two weeks have passed since we sent our previous email requesting a detailed, clearly marked map of the proposed Mon-Oakland Connector route between the Schenley Park soccer field (by the railroad overpass) and Saline St. at Greenfield Ave. We are following up with you for clarification on the proposed MOC route through The Run. We expect a reply within the next 24 hours along with the detailed, clearly marked map we requested. This information is missing from the presentation in your October 2020 public meetings, which you described as the “final” opportunity for public input.

As mentioned in the earlier email, those who are working on behalf of the public and funded with taxes have an obligation to be transparent concerning proposed DOMI projects and their effects (potential or otherwise) on Pittsburgh residents. Residents have a right to full and complete knowledge of all proposed plans for their communities.

Our request for this information is not unreasonable. The information requested should be straightforward by this point in the process. We’d prefer to not be forced to file RTK requests, but will if necessary in order to be clear on the exact path and scope of the proposed route. The Run needs to know how it would affect our community.

Sincerely,
Junction Coalition
***

March 15, 2021

Hello Junction Coalition

Attached please find the requested roll plot with call-outs to specify the details of the two trails.

·       The mobility trail terminates at the parking lot near the soccer field. At this point, trail users join the shared use of the public streets.

·       The Three Rivers Heritage Trail (aka Junction Hollow Trail) follows largely the same path it does today – continuing along the east side of Boundary street under the rail underpass, crosses Boundary Street and then continues adjacent to the rail embankment to the Saline Street cycle track, up an improved curb to and through “The Chute”.

When the “Swinburne Connection | Chute Bypass” is established (see slide 21 of the presentation), the mobility trail would split would have altered the route of the Mobility Trail will skirt around the parking lot and instead climb the embankment below Swinburne, connect to the Swinburne Bridge and provide two options: either crossing the bridge and connecting directly to the Sylvan Trail or continuing straight down Swinburne Extension for a direct connection to the Jail Trail.
***

March 17, 2021

Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

Thank you for the reply. There is still a bit of confusion regarding the illustration you provided and the message in your email, Rather than make assumptions, we are including these few questions for clarity:

  • Your Mon-Oakland 4MR attachment shows the path of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail through the neighborhood, which as you stated appears to be largely unchanged from what it is today. But it does not show the path of the “mobility trail” through the neighborhood. Some people are interpreting this map as though the 3RHT route is showing the path of the shuttle through The Run. Can you clarify whether the shuttle will be taking this path shown in orange for the 3RHT? If not, can you please answer the original question: On what streets in The Run neighborhood will the shuttle travel?
  • Why is a “Swinburne Connection” being discussed when you previously stated in an 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 provide this dedicated path. The street cannot be widened due to the fragile soil conditions.” (emphasis added)?
  • For whom does the “Swinburne Connection” provide two options–cyclists or shuttles? Will shuttles be permitted on the Jail Trail?
  • What did you mean by “slivers” when you said you might need to take “slivers” of our neighbors’ properties on Acorn Street to accommodate the shuttle route on Swinburne Bridge?

~JC
***

April 26, 2021

Hello Again Ms. Ricks and Mr. Panzitta,

It has been more than a month since the previous email and we have not received a response. We wanted to give you another chance to respond before we publish an article on this topic. Do you have answers to any of the questions in our March 17 email?

Thank you,
JC
***

If we ever receive a response, we’ll be sure to post it here. In the mysterious world of the MOC, questions only lead to more unanswered questions.

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.

City’s Mon-Oakland Plan Bulldozes Its Own “Mobility Goals & Objectives”

Ranking criteria for Mon-Oakland Connector from 2019 budget application

On October 21, 2020, Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) will hold what they say is the final public meeting on “phase 1” of their Mon-Oakland Connector (MOC) plan. The project is so controversial, DOMI renamed it the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project—its third name in five years.

In slide 5 of their presentation for this virtual meeting, DOMI lists “Citywide Mobility Goals & Objectives.” When you consider these goals next to the MOC, which calls for building a road through Schenley Park to run 6- to 9-passenger shuttles at 15 mph between the Hazelwood Green development and Oakland university campuses, the controversy becomes clear.

No one dies or is seriously injured traveling on city streets

The Junction Hollow and Eliza Furnace trails together offer pedestrians and cyclists the only car-free route between Oakland, Downtown, and the South Side. The MOC eliminates this safe connection by putting motorized shuttles on Junction Hollow Trail—steps away from a playing field used by youth sports groups and others from around the city. On September 17, 2020, a UPMC shuttle ran over and killed a female pedestrian who was crossing an Oakland street.

Every household can access fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home, without needing a private automobile

MOC’s planned shuttles run between Hazelwood and Oakland, neither of which has a grocery store. Both neighborhoods do have small, family-run shops that sell produce—Dylamato’s in Hazelwood and Groceria Merante in Oakland. But neither of those is on the shuttle route.

No household must spend more than 45% of income on basic housing + essential transportation

Major problems here. There is no guarantee that the cost of riding the privately-operated MOC shuttles will be affordable to low-income residents in the long term. The cost of running the shuttle service, which is designed for fewer than 1,000 daily riders, is extremely high. Yet successful development of Hazelwood Green will outgrow the MOC almost as soon as the road is built. Hazelwood Green expects 20,413 daily trips to their development by 2028. Most distressing of all, no plan is in place to protect renters in Hazelwood and Greenfield from the increased housing costs that such large-scale development projects always bring.

Walking, rolling, or biking is the most enjoyable choice for short distance trips

We rely more than ever on our public parks for health and recreation, but it seems even these crucial green spaces are not safe from developers. Cyclists who use the existing trail consider the MOC a degradation of the trail because they will be forced to share that space with shuttles. Building a new road that is primarily for shuttles through Schenley Park certainly does not improve safety or enjoyment for the cyclists the city says it wants to encourage.

Streets and public rights of way reflect the values of our City and community

If you’ve read this far, you can decide for yourself how the MOC stacks up against this “mobility goal.” Does the MOC reflect your values? City officials want to spend $23 million of our taxes on this project whether we like it or not. And—since the MOC is the single biggest transportation corridor investment the City of Pittsburgh is contributing to—they are making a statement that it’s our biggest transportation priority.

Residents of affected communities created an alternative plan called Our Money, Our Solutions (OMOS) that does a much better job of connecting more people to more jobs, grocery stores, healthcare, and amenities—all for significantly less money. The community-driven plan has led to weekend service on the 93 bus line and forced DOMI to claim that key components of OMOS were always part of the MOC plan. But MOC’s aim has not changed: Build a road through Schenley Park to accommodate shuttles that serve the universities and Hazelwood Green development.

The MOC reflects someone’s values, and those values are attached to dollar signs for a few at the expense of many. Our public representatives are lifting the goals of private universities, foundations, and developers above our needs.