By Juliet Martinez
Cheers erupted when Mayor Ed Gainey said the City will not build the Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle road.
He, Councilman Corey O’Connor and a dozen of the mayor’s staff went to Hazelwood on Feburary 17. The Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative hosted the meeting in the auditorium of Propel Hazelwood school. The day before, the mayor’s office released a statement canceling the shuttle road plan. More than 100 residents of Hazelwood and Four Mile Run showed up to hear him say it.
“I just want to mention a couple things,” he began. “The Mon-Oakland Connector shuttle project will not move forward.”
The project has raised hackles since 2015. Mayor Bill Peduto and a group of university and foundation partners conceived it as convenient transit between university campuses in Oakland and tech businesses on Hazelwood Green. The original plans included a road for driverless shuttles. Later designs dropped autonomous vehicles.
Residents of The Run said the City never asked if they wanted a shuttle road through their small neighborhood. They objected, but said Peduto's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure was stonewalling.
Last month, they applauded when Mayor Gainey said the City will build a trail, not a road.
“The commuter trail will not meet standards for weight carrying capacity,” Mayor Gainey said.
But his administration will follow through on crucial infrastructure work in Panther Hollow and The Run, he said.
The mayor’s February 16 statement said the City will instead promote what he called equitable transit improvements along the Boulevard-Bates-Second Avenue Corridor.
While the City will not build the shuttle road, the statement said the revised Mon-Oakland project will include a pedestrian trail comparable to the Eliza Furnace Trail between Oakland and Hazelwood.
Stormwater draining from Schenley Park has caused severe flooding in The Run for decades. Residents of the low-lying neighborhood and others formed Junction Coalition to make their voices heard. They created their own plan for mobility and infrastructure, Our Money Our Solutions with support from Pittsburghers for Public Transit.
Mayor Peduto’s administration pressed on with the project. But they conceded the stormwater project was necessary. They combined it into the connector plans. In 2018, PWSA said the $42M Four Mile Run stormwater project should be underway in 2020.
The City applied for join permits for the Mon-Oakland and stormwater projects. Junction Coalition advocates have lobbied for separating the permits. Neither project has broken ground yet.
“Today I want to make sure that everybody understands right here and now, that we are not in the business of taking your house.” - Mayor Ed Gainey
In October, Tony Igwe of PWSA told a public meeting if the City changed or stopped the Mon-Oakland trail design, permitting would have to start over. This would set the stormwater project back significantly, he said.
At the February meeting, Deputy Mayor Jake Pawley said the City wants to avoid this delay if possible. The Gainey administration is filing an amendment to the Mon-Oakland project permit application. This means they will not have to start the stormwater permitting over on its own. Councilman O’Connor said planned trail improvements along Sylvan Avenue will also go forward.
Flooding was not the only thing residents of The Run feared would endanger their homes.
In August, 2020, homeowners under Swinburne bridge received a letter from a Department of Mobility and Infrastructure contractor. The letter contained the words “eminent domain” couched in legalese. It sparked fears of the City taking residents' homes.
At the community meeting in February, Mayor Gainey spoke to the alarm the letter caused.
“I know there was a letter that went out,” he began. “The letter was, in my eyes, poorly put together. And I want to apologize for that.”
He assured those present the City will not impose imminent domain. “I know legal jargon sometimes gets confusing,” he said. “Today I want to make sure that everybody understands right here and now, that we are not in the business of taking your house.”
Justin Macey is a lifelong resident of The Run. The shuttle road plan made him feel like the City saw residents of The Run as nothing more than an inconvenient barrier to development. But the apology was a big step toward mending fences with the neighborhood.
“The last administration killed any kind of trust by continually lying to us and not being forthcoming and transparent about the project from the beginning,” Mr. Macey said the day after the meeting. He praised Gainey for being there to listen to residents’ concerns. “It was a good start to rebuilding that trust that was lost,” he said.
It’s still only a start. Run resident Barb Warwick said there is more to do.
“At the end of the day, this whole thing hasn’t been just about the road, it’s been about the money and using public money for public needs,” Ms. Warwick said on February 18. “The question is what comes next. It’s important for folks to remember that it was being united as communities that got us here.”
Many Hazelwood residents joined Four Mile Run neighbors in opposing the project.
“At the end of the day, this whole thing hasn’t been just about the road, it’s been about the money and using public money for public needs. The question is what comes next. It’s important for folks to remember that it was being united as communities that got us here.” - Barb Warwick, resident of Four Mile Run
Hazelwood Pastor Lutual Love lauded this solidarity at the community meeting.
"If it wasn’t for the people organizing,” he said, “This project would be sticking right down our throats.”
Mayor Gainey encouraged more cross-neighborhood solidarity.
“If we can work together across lines, think of what we can do,” he said. “Going forward, love Hazelwood, but love Greenfield. Love Greenfield, but love The Run. And more importantly, love the city that we can build.”