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Rail lines would coexist, not compete, consultant says

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Sunday, April 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A commuter rail line from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh would not be in competition with a proposed light rail extension to the North Hills, says the president of the consulting firm working to get the Alle-Kiski commuter rail line built.

In fact, an extension of Port Authority of Allegheny County's T line through the North Hills to Cranberry could complement the Valley project, said Robert Ardolino, president of Pittsburgh-based Urban Innovations.

“I would welcome a (light rail) project,” Ardolino said.

“It's a great opportunity to connect to the North Hills. I think it's a mobility choice that needs to be evaluated,” he said. “It has to go through the process just like the North Shore extension. It will fail or pass on its own merits.”

Talk of extending the light rail system comes about a year after Port Authority opened the North Shore Connector in Pittsburgh.

Last month, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald organized a meeting with engineering consultants to talk about an extension.

He said the commuter train and light rail projects are at the same time “kind of together,” yet “independent” of each other.

Transportation links to Pittsburgh International Airport and Pittsburgh's Oakland section also must be examined, along with the commuter train and light-rail projects, Fitzgerald said.

“All of these projects are things we have to look at and decide, as a community, which ones we are going to be able to do and go to the state and federal government for,” Fitzgerald said.

‘Apples and peaches'

The cost of the 22-mile commuter train line is about $415 million, Ardolino said.

The cost of the 18-mile North Hills T extension has been estimated at about $1.4 billion.

While the two projects would compete for some of the same government tax dollars, Ardolino said it's like comparing “apples and peaches.”

Light rail falls under state and transportation authority jurisdiction; commuter rail comes under federal oversight.

While both projects could go for funding from the Federal Transit Administration, commuter rail has access to funding such as federal railroad money and private equity, not available to light rail, Ardolino said.

“Our project is much further along,” he said. “What our project requires now is a project sponsor.”

A project sponsor is a public agency authorized to receive federal grants for construction. The lack of a sponsor has delayed the project by 18 months, pushing back the start of service to 2018.

U.S. Reps. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, whose 12th District contains much of both rail lines, and Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment about funding availability for the projects.

New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo said he's been trying to find out if the projects would compete with each other, but hasn't gotten an answer.

“Obviously, I would hope they weren't competing,” he said, calling the commuter rail “incredibly important” for his city.

“It would be one in a series of game changers for not only New Kensington but this whole area. It would provide us an opportunity to put housing downtown that would be for young urban professionals who want to work in Pittsburgh and easier than going on (Route) 28 like most of us do every day,” he said.

Commuter line easier

The commuter rail would follow an existing active freight corridor, Ardolino said.

“The commuter rail to Allegheny Valley could be more easily done because the rail line is already there,” Fitzgerald said. “There is no rail line going up into Cranberry.”

While there is no plan today to expand the T, a key goal of the North Shore connector was to make the system expandable, Port Authority officials have said.

“I don't think that's any more than a pipe dream at the moment,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “There has not been any discussion about applying for funds or even putting together a proposal, just some early brainstorming about it.”

While a North Hills light rail extension would roughly follow Interstates 279 and 79, how it would get there from the existing system is complex, Haulk said.

“It takes so much thinking about how this would work,” Haulk said, “I don't see it as a real viable option for a long time.”

Valley optimism

With more transportation needs than dollars, Fitzgerald said the decision will come down to gauging community support and what various stakeholders push for and put their political weight behind.

“It's going to be a big community decision, not a decision that's going to solely come out of my office,” he said.

While the commuter rail project has been talked about for many years, Guzzo said there are those still believing it can be made reality.

“With the ebb and flow of any project that size, there will be times of great anticipation and times of let down,” Guzzo said. “There are people who have absolutely not given up.

“There are people who have an abundance of enthusiasm for the project and continue to tell us it will be a go. We're basing our optimism on what we hear.

“I'm often asked when it's going to happen,” the mayor said. “It comes up quite often. It's fresh on peoples' minds in this whole area.

“It would improve the lives of so many people.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

 

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