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Future brightens for Alle-Kiski Commuter Rail project

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 12:12 a.m.

Recently approved state transportation funding and anticipated support from Pittsburgh's mayor-elect has renewed momentum for the Alle-Kiski Commuter Rail project.

Urban Innovations, the consulting firm working to get the commuter rail line running from Lower Burrell to Pittsburgh, plans to go before Pittsburgh's city council early next year to ask the city to become the designated grantee for federal funding, said Robert Ardolino, president of Urban Innovations.

“Having a public agency in this process is vital, so they can shepherd the public process to make sure the public is being served,” Ardolino said. “I feel that the city and the counties realize that this corridor (could be) a generator of $1.5 billion in economic development.”

Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto is a proponent of alternative transportation sources. He supports establishing a 4.2-mile commuter rail between Pittsburgh's Hazelwood, Oakland and Lawrenceville neighborhoods on the existing railroad line.

Last week, Peduto said he needs more information before he can commit his support to the Alle-Kiski project.

“I've met with (Allegheny Valley Railroad President) Russ Peterson,” Peduto said. “We want to work with them on a proposal, but until I see a proposal, I can't sign off on it. There's nothing that's been proposed yet to me to be able to support.”

Ardolino said he plans to present a proposal to city government by mid-January.

“We're waiting patiently until (Peduto) gets into office, and then we're going to submit a proposal,” he said. “We can't do anything until he gets into office.”

The commuter rail project could get an additional boost from the state transportation bill passed last month. It allocates $30 million to a new Multi-Modal Transportation Fund. About $8 million of that was dedicated to passenger rail projects in 2014-15.

“We continue to try to find ways to get this funded,” said state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. “These things take time, and it's great to have the new mayor interested. We're looking forward to him cooperating with us.”

Engineering study needed

If city council signs on to the project, Urban Innovations would begin applying for federal grant funding for an environmental engineering study along the 22-mile Allegheny Valley Railroad corridor.

The 12- to 14-month study would include two options for a Pittsburgh connection, one at Penn Station on the East Busway near the corner of Grant Street and Liberty Avenue, and at the Port Authority's Steel Plaza light rail transit station at Grant Street and Oliver Avenue in downtown.

During the course of the study, Urban Innovations would begin working with local communities on station development plans. That process would include seeking public input.

The next step would be applying to PennDOT to structure the commuter rail project as a Public-Private Partnership. That process will take from six to eight months, Ardolino said.

State law defines a Public-Private Partnership Project as a contract between a public and private agency that transfers the engineering, construction, operation or maintenance to the private sector for a specified time.

Urban Innovations then plans to apply for additional federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program.

Ardolino said his company is working with the Port Authority of Allegheny County on the technical aspects of the federal grant process.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the authority has expressed support for Ardolino's team as it moves through the process.

“That remains the case today,” Ritchie said. “Generally, we've been supportive of their consultant team, which has been looking into potential tie-ins between that system and the Port Authority system.

“Our biggest role in all of this is to answer their questions about our system, the process and assist with information as much as possible,” Ritchie said.

A number of public, private and civic organizations have become stakeholders in the endeavor, including local governments and civic groups that advocate for transit improvements.

Among them is First Service Commercial Loans, which has said as much as $350 million in private money is available for the project.

Most recently, New Kensington's water authority agreed to allow an engineering study of its property related to the proposed commuter rail line.

Urban Innovations wants to have an engineering firm look at the property and determine the feasibility of building a rail link through it.

The link would run from Ferry Street along the Allegheny River to where the new commuter line would start near the bottom of Craigdell Road in Lower Burrell.

However, authority board members have questioned why the line would need to be built through that section of property, which has a large retention pond, a building and a water tank.

They suggested it could cost millions of dollars to go around, under or above the plant, as Urban Innovations consultant Colleen Ronzanc suggested.

Obstacles remain

Despite optimism, major obstacles remain for the project, which is more than 20 years in the making.

Finding additional funding is one of the biggest challenges, said state Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville.

“I would never want to give the wrong impression about where things are; there are a lot of hurdles to overcome,” he said. “Groups like Urban Innovations have continued to evaluate the project and figure out what needs to be done.

“I've been a staunch supporter of transforming mass transit in the Pittsburgh region to be rail-based,” Evankovich said. “I would hope that if there is enough of a movement to make Pittsburgh mass transit a rail-based system that an Alle-Kiski line would be part of that.”

Additionally, last January, Allegheny Valley Railroad filed a lawsuit to overturn a special zoning district that Pittsburgh City Council formed in the Strip District to help The Buncher Co. build a residential, office, hotel and retail development on a mostly vacant area between 16th and 21st streets.

Officials with the railroad believe the area still has value to them because of a long-standing easement that once gave trains access to the produce wholesalers' destination on the north side of the building.

The suit is pending in Allegheny County Court.

There also is the issue of government subsidies that likely will be needed to cover long-term operations.

Ardolino believes the train would need about 88 cents per passenger mile.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, questions whether the project is sustainable.

“Ideally, there's no question we'd like to see rail and alternative transportation modes,” he said.

He said there are several proposed long-term transit projects.

Specifically, he noted a proposal to replace the Parkway North HOV lanes with a monorail that would run between Pittsburgh and Cranberry.

“I think there are a lot of competing projects here,” Ferlo said. “The issue is what can be done and what is sustainable.”

Proponents of the line point to a 2009 feasibility study commissioned by the Westmoreland County Transit Authority that found enough potential riders for rail service on two lines, from Latrobe to Pittsburgh and from Arnold to Pittsburgh.

“I'm very positive, still, about the project,” Ardolino said. “We've been working very diligently to keep it in the process.”

Staff writers Bob Bauder and Brian Rittmeyer contributed. Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or

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