By Ken Rice

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — If you’re flying out of Pittsburgh this busy travel week, where is your layover? Charlotte? Atlanta? O’Hare?

Perhaps you remember a magical time when you could fly almost anywhere from Pittsburgh nonstop on US Airways. But since we lost that hub years ago, departures have plummeted from more than 600 a day to just under 200. There just aren’t enough people living around here, we’re told, to warrant much more. But Dr. Art Davidson has an idea to change that.

Davidson is a retired CMU researcher and administrator. He looks at the world differently than most of us. He’s a scientist and an engineer with a special understanding of circuits. Of networks. He sees connections others don’t.

Strolling the riverfront at Station Square, Davidson envisions railroad tracks linking Pittsburgh to a very similar city – two hours away by car – but by high-speed rail, less than one hour.

Says Davidson, “It’s a matter of picking your eyes up off your own shoes and looking at the horizon.”

Art Davidson sees Cleveland on that horizon. Cleveland – a city that lost its own airline hub three years ago, resulting in the same kind of frustration Pittsburgh fliers have felt.

Davidson’s idea: Link the two cities by high-speed rail and create one, major airport to serve both – somewhere around Youngstown – a speedy, 30-minute train ride from either city.

“It’s the train from Pittsburgh to Cleveland that’s driving the airport,” Davidson says. “If the train is there, the airport’s a no-brainer.”

Instead of Pittsburgh International serving a population of 2.5 million people and Cleveland Hopkins serving 3.5 million, Davidson says one airport serving both metros would attract more nonstops and better fares.

“There’s an opportunity to put an airport in the middle of 6 million people.”

“I’m all for high speed rail,” says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. And he agrees, “the high speed rail would almost have to come first.”

But Fitzgerald says investing in rail would have to be a federal program, like the creation of the interstate highways was. He is not counting on it.

“We haven’t been shown the willingness to invest as a nation in high-speed rail,” he says.

Ok. But let’s say that somehow – for the sake of this thought experiment – we get the rail. Then could a new, shared airport- a “shareport” – make sense?

No, says the CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. For one thing, Christina Cassotis says the enormous expense of building a new airport would be prohibitive – maybe $10 billion, she says.

Further, Cassotis says that going from two airports to one could backfire, since airlines already balance their offerings between the Pittsburgh and Cleveland airports – knowing some fliers will use either.

“If we put that airport in the middle, I actually think we would lose service, says Cassotis. “All the flights that the two of us have to Florida, we won’t need to have both of those flight patterns anymore, because you’ll put them all together and you can get them on, instead of 15 flights, you can get them on 12.”

She says the big new airport would have fuller planes, flying less frequently.

We also asked Michael Boyd, a nationally known aviation industry consultant, to weigh in on combining airports. He was very – let’s say – blunt.
“That’s a totally fruitcake idea,” says Boyd. “That’s the only way of putting it.”

Boyd is based in Colorado but is familiar with our region.

“It’s one of those things where on paper it sounds real good, but when you look at the economics of air transportation and indeed how airlines operate, it doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says.

Even with fast trains zipping passengers to and from the new airport, Boyd says a base of 6 million people still would not be enough to warrant hub-level service.

But Boyd says don’t overlook what’s happening here now with newer carriers like Spirit, OneJet, WOW and – coming soon – Alaska Airlines.

“The fact is you’re not an under-served airport. You’re not a poorly served airport. You’re a very strongly served airport,” says Boyd. “In Pittsburgh, in Cleveland, stick with your own airports. You’re going to be a whole lot happier.”

But Art Davidson, the forward-looking, connection-seeking scientist and engineer, asks what’s wrong with thinking bigger, especially before spending $1 billion on a planned transformation of Pittsburgh International? What’s wrong with pondering what might set up Pittsburgh and Cleveland for faster growth than either might achieve alone?

Says Davidson, “We could get further, for both cities, by cooperating.”

Davidson’s son, Adam, is a big thinker, too. He has a master’s degree in urban planning and is currently pursuing his own PhD in geography.

As he sees it, his father’s plan is about envisioning a fundamentally different future for this region. And he says it will be linkages – and infrastructure – that create the future.

Something to think about, during your layover.

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