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2017-09-22 / News

RTA aims to energize transportation network with new report

BY SPENCER MYERS
Editor

Indiana, Pa - The Regional Transportation Alliance of Southwestern Pennsylvania (RTA) hosted a briefing with local leaders in Indiana County this past August. The briefing covered the organization’s new report, “Imagine Transportation 2.0”, which is the result of a myriad of meetings, conference calls and conversations scheduled by the RTA to gather information about the biggest transportation challenges from a wide selection of groups across their ten county area. According to the RTA website, the organization has contacted nearly 800 groups across 23 different market segments.

“We’re all transportation experts in our own right. We know what works. More importantly, we know what doesn’t work. There isn’t always an easy way for those people to sort of engage with the process because they’re too busy to be a part of the process, so we very deliberately wanted to not ignore them. Everybody has a seat at this table. We wanted to talk to employers. We wanted to talk to chambers of commerce, but the table has to be bigger than that. So we worked hard to identify sort of non-traditional input to come into this,” said Ken Zapinski, senior vice president of energy and infrastructure at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The resulting report is filled with transportation innovations that range from simple sign improvements to adding a commuter railway system.

On a local level, the plan outlines updates to Route 422 in Indiana County, but as a vision designed to pique interest, the specifics have yet to be revealed. According to the plan, “opportunities have been identified to improve strategic intersections and select portions of the road’s geometry to improve the overall flow and safety.”

On the larger project side is an idea to add commuter rail to the freight corridors in the railway system. The idea taps into a larger feeling that the American railway system ought to offer more to its residents.

“People like to look at Europe and say, ‘why can’t we have trains like Europe?’ I prefer to look at Europe and say, ‘why can’t they have trains like the United States?’ Because the United States has the greatest network of freight rail in the entire world. It’s literally pennies on the pound to transport something from the port of Los Angeles to Pittsburgh on freight rail. Because of the distances involved and due to our particular commerce model, we’ve developed incredibly robust freight rail systems and less robust passenger rail systems,” he said.

Due in part to freight’s dominance of the system, problems come into play when you try to add a passenger rail system to the already functioning schedule of goods being transported.

“The more trains you have to schedule, whether they’re freight trains or a commuter rail train using that same track, the more complex it becomes. For a commuter rail to be really effective you need more than just one train a day that’s running between two cities. You need four or five in the morning and four or five in the evening and now all of the sudden, what was a freeway for freight trains becomes the equivalent of driving behind a Sheetz truck going 25 mile an hour uphill.

“Having said that, that doesn’t mean you just say there’s nothing you can do. You keep looking at it and working at it and trying to find opportunities,” he said.

The report also plans ahead by keeping alternative fuel sources in mind. If other cities already have electric buses, why not bring them to rural Pennsylvania?

“This is a very challenging area to implement electric buses, because of the hills and the temperate climate with hot summers and cold winters.

“The heating and air conditioning systems are tough in particular. Heating systems on internal combustion systems take excess heat off of the engine and warm up the bus. If you’re going to go to an electric bus, then you need to come up with a way to heat it. You could do electric heat, which is really inefficient because what’s your doing is creating purposeful resistance in heating up wires and that pulls out a lot of amps out of the batteries. Or you can do something else. There are electric buses that use diesel generators to run their air conditioning and their heating.

“My colleague Carly Dobbins-Bucklad said at one point, ‘If these things were easy, they would have been done already,’” Zapinski said. .

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