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Arnold-to-Pittsburgh rail project picks up speed

Backers of a proposed commuter rail line that would run between northern Westmoreland County and Pittsburgh say the project is on the fast track and could begin operations in mid-2013.

A consultant for Allegheny Valley Railroad Co. said Thursday $171 million in private funding has been lined up in the form of a loan from an unnamed investment banking firm in Georgia.

"We've secured the financing," said Robert Andolino, president of Urban Innovations, the Pittsburgh consulting firm hired by the railroad to coordinate the commuter rail project.

Andolino earlier this week briefed county officials about the proposal.

The rail line project is one of two envisioned by local officials to provide train service between Westmoreland County and Pittsburgh. A feasibility study commissioned by the Westmoreland County Transit Authority and released last summer determined there was sufficient interest to move forward proposals to run rail service from Greensburg to Pittsburgh and Arnold to Pittsburgh.

The Arnold line would operate on tracks owned by the Allegheny Valley Railroad Co., which operates freight service during the evenings on track that runs along the Allegheny River.

Andolino said the Arnold spur of that project is now ready to move forward. The $171 million bank loan would be used to pay for track repairs, construction of a maintenance facility, the building of stations and other costs associated with completing the project.

Meanwhile, a government-appointed commission would have to be created to apply for federal grant funds that would be used to repay the private investors, Andolino said.

"We're trying to get 67 percent in grants. It's a matter of when we get the money. We'll get at least 50 percent," Andolino said.

The transit authority's study found that it would cost about $208 million to build the Arnold rail line and an additional $208 million for the Greensburg branch of the train project.

The Greensburg spur would operate on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern, and so far, no deals have been reached for the freight company to allow commuter trains on its tracks.

The authority's study determined the Greensburg branch would begin in Latrobe and stop in Greensburg, Jeannette, Irwin and Trafford. The line would end at Penn Station in downtown Pittsburgh.

Andolino said the Allegheny Railroad project is independent from the transit authority proposals.

The $171 million project, which incorporated some findings in the authority's feasibility study, would have four trains running into the city each morning with intermittent service throughout the day. Four evening trains would take passengers from the city.

Passengers would catch the train at stations in Arnold, New Kensington, Oakmont, Penn Hills and in Pittsburgh, near 26th Street in the Strip District before the line ends Downtown.

Andolino said an environmental impact study will have to be completed and applications for federal grants will be prepared later this year.

"We're pointing to having it up and running by June 2013," Andolino said.

County officials reacted cautiously to the proposal.

"I've not seen the proposal, and I can't comment on it," said transit authority Executive Director Larry Morris. "This whole proposal was new to me."

Morris said the Allegheny Railroad plan would not affect the authority's efforts to move forward with its own plans for the two rail lines, originating in Arnold and Latrobe.

Westmoreland County Planning Director Larry Larese said there are still unanswered questions about how the Allegheny Railroad proposal would be paid for and if any government subsidies would be needed for its operation.

"There's a long way to go before we get excited by it. There is a lot more information that has to be provided. We have to be very cautious," Larese said.

Westmoreland and Allegheny officials met last month about the formation of a joint commission to oversee the rail projects. Morris said those talks are ongoing.

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