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Lack of sponsor delays Alle-Kiski commuter rail project

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 12:21 a.m.
Robert Ardolino, President and CEO of Urban Innovations, on Wednesday, April 25, 2012.
Jason Bridge  |  Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Robert Ardolino, President and CEO of Urban Innovations, on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

The consulting firm pushing to get the Alle-Kiski Valley commuter rail built is struggling to find a project sponsor — a public agency authorized to receive federal grants for construction.

The difficulties already have delayed the project, forcing the consultants to sit out federal funding cycles in 2012 and 2013.

“One of our current challenges is to establish a grantee for the project,” said Robert Ardolino, president of Urban Innovations, the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm working to get the commuter rail line running from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh. “The grantee is typically a public agency. Our regional agencies have been supportive but do not have the financial resources to move the project forward.”

He said the project has been delayed about 18 months. That pushes back any start of service to 2018.

There are plenty of skeptics who doubt the commuter train will ever run, and for good reason.

Thirty years ago, a commuter train was expected to run from Pittsburgh to Tarentum.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County gave the go-ahead in 1982 for a one-year experimental run.

That run never happened.

“I would assume that if the demand was really there, then it would move forward,” said Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. “I have not seen any studies on the possible demand for a rail line through that corridor.”

Ardolino maintains the circumstances are different now. He points to the commitment of more than $350 million in private funding as proof.

But the need for the state to subsidize the commuter rail remains.

“It all comes down to the money, the economics of the thing,” Gamrat said.

Asked whether Gov. Tom Corbett has any inclination to subsidize the project, Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for the governor, said it's premature to talk about the issue. She said because the project has no firm plans, there's really nothing for Corbett to consider.

In spring 2012, Urban Innovations asked the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to prepare a sponsoring proposal required by the federal government to apply for funding.

SPC: ‘Too local'

The commission declined, suggesting the project is too localized and specialized for the multi-county commission to support.

“It is not clear from the work that has thus far been completed that a 10-county organization would be the best sponsor — going toward implementation — of what is essentially a localized project,” commission Executive Director James Hassinger wrote in a letter responding to the request. “It would also perhaps be prudent that a sponsor agency should have deep transit experience to guide their related responsibilities and investments.”

Ardolino suggested timing played a key role in the SPC's decision to refuse sponsorship. The commission would've been forced to turn around the necessary paperwork in short order, he said.

Ardolino said he may again approach SPC regarding the federal funding.

An area in which Urban Innovations will be working with the SPC regional planning agency is to get the project on the Long-Range Transportation and Development Plan.

PennDOT can't sponsor

With the SPC refusing to sign on, Urban Innovations planned to ask PennDOT for support.

But a PennDOT spokeswoman told the Valley News Dispatch the department can't sponsor the project because of the role it plays in awarding money to transit projects.

“PennDOT could not sponsor the project because PennDOT is also a reviewer of such projects for state funding consideration,” spokeswoman Erin Waters said. “We cannot sponsor a project and be an objective reviewer for funding consideration at the same time. As this is a local/private project, they would need a local sponsor.”

Ardolino said he plans to meet with PennDOT officials to apply to create a public-private partnership. PennDOT would then review the project for funding eligibility. State planning money would be matched with private funding to initiate the environmental and project development process.

Authority not asked

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said no one has asked the authority to sign on as a sponsor.

“We're always open to new ideas and proposals that are aimed at improving public transportation for residents,” he said. “However, among the challenges facing this proposal is a lack of funding. We'll continue to participate in discussions as they may pertain to the Port Authority system and monitor any changes that might improve the financial outlook for the proposal.”

Urban Innovations did an alternatives analysis required by the Federal Transit Administration, which gauges the viability of other transit options within the proposed rail corridor. Those options could range from doing nothing to increasing bus service, for example.

The study, funded with $1.5 million in federal grant money, was conducted in connection with the Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard Plan, which looked at parks and open spaces, neighborhood design in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood and transportation along the Allegheny Riverfront.

The FTA uses the research to decide if the project is worth financing.

Study may lead to funds

Urban innovations will use the study, also known as a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) study, to seek funding from the Federal Transportation Administration's New Starts and Small Starts program.

The program is the federal government's primary financial resource for supporting locally planned, implemented and operated transit capital investments.

“It outlines the corridor, alignment, ridership, economic benefits and financial plan,” Ardolino said. “It justifies to the federal government to spend the money.”

Route change considered

In the study, the proposed rail would begin at the Port Authority's Steel Plaza light- rail transit station, located at Grant Street and Oliver Avenue, Downtown.

Ardolino had originally proposed that the rail line begin at Port Authority's Penn Station on the East Busway near the corner of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue.

There is a seldom-used T stop there, but Ritchie said the possibility of changing that isn't something Port Authority was discussing.

However, the rail line would not tie directly into the Port Authority system due to the expense of tunneling underground to make the direct connection, Ardolino said.

Another option includes placing the terminus at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Urban Innovations officials couldn't immediately provide estimated cost differences for the various options.

Comments regarding this story should be sent to Jodi Weigand at 724-226-4702 or

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