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Alle-Kiski commuter rail proposal can look at T for inspiration

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 1:01 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
With one connection off of the commuter train onto the 'T' system, pictured here, commuters can reach PNC Park, Heinz Field, and South Hills Village to name a few locations. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Robert Ardolino, President and CEO of Urban Innovations, talks about the connection between New Jersey Transit's River LINE and the proposed commuter rail line running from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh while at the River LINE's operations and maintenance facility in Camden, NJ on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Robert Ardolino, President and CEO of Urban Innovations, talks about the connection between New Jersey Transit's River LINE and the proposed commuter rail line running from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh while at the River LINE's operations and maintenance facility in Camden, NJ on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Paula Niebles, of Bellevue, rides the T into the south hills during the morning rush hour on Thursday, November 1, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
The newly redeveloped Champion Plaza contains 19,000 square feet of retail space within walking distance of the Library T station at the end of the Blue Line on the T. Photographed on Thursday, November 1, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
The final stop on the T's Bue Line in Library rests within walking distance of the newly redeveloped Champion Plaza contains 19,000 square feet of retail space in Library on Thursday, November 1, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

The champion of the proposed commuter rail from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh has long held up the River LINE in New Jersey as the model for development that will happen in the region if the line becomes a reality.

Robert Ardolino, president of Urban Innovations, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm, believes a commuter line would bring business and housing development to downtown New Kensington, Verona and the Lawrenceville section of the city.

But Pittsburgh has had a commuter rail line for almost 30 years — the T — which runs from Downtown to the far South Hills suburbs. Has the T brought commercial and residential development to the communities it serves?

The answer is not entirely clear.

• The T certainly has clearly affected the housing market, as existing homes close to a stop are quite attractive to buyers who work in the city, real estate professionals say.

• Many of the small retailers in the downtown areas of Mt. Lebanon and Dormont benefit from the T.

• The municipalities of Bethel Park and South Park, where the two T lines terminate, have seen some development.

• There have been no large-scale housing and/or retail developments close to the tracks — although several have been proposed.

• There has been little business development along the T stops in some city neighborhoods, such as Overbrook, Beechview and Brookline.

Three decades on

For about 30 years now, Pittsburgh's 26-mile light rail transit system, operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, has served the South Hills communities, including Brookline, Mt. Lebanon and Dormont. The two lines end at South Hills Village mall in Bethel Park and at a park-and-ride on Brownsville Road in the Library section of South Park Township.

Light rail service from South Hills Village to Castle Shannon began in 1984, the downtown Pittsburgh subway system opened in 1985 and T service to Library began in 1988.

Many riders said they choose the T over the bus because of convenience.

“I know what time I'll get there, and that's very important to me,” said Zouhair Mkais, 40, of Ingram. “I think it has great value to the city.”

The Port Authority uses public funds to subsidize at least half of the cost of a ride on its light rail line.

A T ride costs about $7, according to the authority. Riders are charged $2.50 for a zone 1 ride and $3.75 for zone 2. The dividing line for the zones is the Washington Junction stop in Bethel Park.

Riders pay an additional 75 cents during peak riding hours in the morning and afternoon.

Important to the real estate market

Ruth Foltz, a vice president with Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, and manager of the firm's Mt. Lebanon office, said the T line is something real estate agents tout when selling a home in the South Hills.

“I think most of our buyers coming in from out of town, if they live in an area that has good transportation, that's the first thing they ask about,” she said. “For others who might not know how great it is, it's a nice surprise we can tell them about.”

Jerry Duke, Bethel Park's municipal planner, said one of the attractive assets of the light rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods, unlike the Port Authority's busways — which are elevated and mostly isolated.

“I think it adds that sense of assurance,” he said. “You have that sense that you're in a community.”

Robert Ardolino and Urban Innovations are working to get a commuter rail running from Pittsburgh to Lower Burrell. Ardolino's primary selling point for the Alle-Kiski Valley commuter rail is that it will spur development and redevelopment in the towns and neighborhoods along the route.

Ardolino believes the A-K rail, which would travel the Allegheny Valley Railroad, has potential similar to the T.

“The return on investment is going to be significant,” he said. The estimated cost of the project is $380 million and the return on investment over 20 years is about $1 billion, he said.

“You have to project out that long because of the growth that will definitely occur,” Ardolino said. “The development piece will be local jurisdiction driven. They'll be able to weigh in on what they want to see around their stations.”

Growing up in Upper St. Clair, Ardolino rode the trolley, and later the T, to visit family in Beechview and Brookline and travel to Pittsburgh.

“I watched the South Hills evolve,” he said.

Foltz, a real estate agent for 35 years and a lifelong Mt. Lebanon resident, said she's seen a lot of change from the days when the trolleys ran through her town.

“I think there's no question it has benefited in so many ways,” she said. “A lot of little restaurants and shops became more popular in the shopping area (in Mt. Lebanon).”

Next door to Howard Hanna's office on Washington Road near the Port Authority's Mt. Lebanon Tunnel, a seven-story Spring Hill Suites is being constructed.

“I don't think that would be happening if we didn't have the T,” Foltz said.

South Park development

South Park Township officials credit the addition of a park-and-ride at the end of the T line in Library in 2000 with spurring redevelopment within the past three to five years of two long-vacant buildings in that section of the township.

A former elementary school was converted into apartments and a commercial building at the T stop was turned into “a small retail center,” known as Champion Plaza, said South Park Township Manager Karen Fosbaugh.

“Before the T stop came, the Champion building sat there unoccupied for 20 years,” she said.

Now it's at full capacity, housing a gym, restaurant and other retailers.

“There's maybe 50 or 60 (people) that joined because of the T and because they could get off and come right here,” said Barb Devine, of Jefferson Hills, manager of SNAP Fitness, the anchor tenant in the 19,000-square-foot building. “It's a great asset to South Park. It's buzzing. It's a busy little plaza.”

In areas of the South Hills where the T line and park-and-rides are well established, new development hasn't occurred for years— although apartments and shops recently were proposed in separate projects at the Castle Shannon park-and-ride and South Hills Village mall.

Many areas of Bethel Park “grew up” around the existing T line, said Duke, Bethel Parks' municipal planner.

The municipality wouldn't be the same without it, he said.

“I think that it adds to the character and attractiveness of it,” he said. “I think Bethel Park wouldn't be as good as it is.”

T rider Nicole Eckert, 37, of Bethel Park said she's never taken the bus from Library to the Steel Plaza stop in downtown Pittsburgh.

“I think people really rely on it heavily,” she said of the light rail system. “It's very convenient.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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