T expansion could take tracks to the North Hills, cost estimate over $1 billion
A year after opening the North Shore Connector, elected officials are talking with engineers about again extending Port Authority of Allegheny County's light-rail system.
“I think it's something we have to at least take a look at,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who organized a recent meeting with engineering consultants to discuss an extension.
Starting in the late 1990s, proponents of building the 1.2-mile North Shore Connector under the Allegheny River pitched it as the possible first leg of an extension to the North Hills or Pittsburgh International Airport. That talk ended when runaway costs and delays soured the public's perception of what became a $517 million project.
The light-rail link from Downtown to the North Shore opened a year ago on Monday.
Planning for Port Authority's next big capital project turned to developing rapid bus service between Downtown and Oakland at a fraction of the cost of light-rail. But a surge in the transit agency's light-rail ridership and development along the T over the past year rekindled interest in rail.
“The North Shore Connector obviously was a controversial project. However, despite that, it really turned out to be successful and something that lived up to the intention of leaders in the community,” said Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.
More than 7.7 million people rode the T last year, up 14.7 percent from the 6.7 million who used it in 2011, according to American Public Transportation Association data. T ridership decreased year-to-year in the previous three years, after a 5.5 percent gain in 2008, APTA data show.
Nationally, light-rail ridership rose 4.5 percent last year, APTA said. Port Authority's gain represented the nation's 6th-largest jump in light-rail traffic, behind systems in Hampton, Va., Memphis, Dallas, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
“There is no plan on the books today to expand it, but that was one of the key goals, to develop something that was expandable in the future. We'll go where the community wants to go,” Ritchie said.
Registered professional engineer Kevin Creagh of Ohio Township said he and his consulting partner, data analyst Steve DiMiceli of Mt. Washington, recently discussed a plan to extend the T with a group including Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Councilman Bill Peduto, whom Fitzgerald supports in the mayoral race, and several development officials. Creagh, Shaler's township engineer, said Fitzgerald invited them to make the presentation.
Though the federal government provides money for transit capital projects, staffers for U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said the congressmen did not participate in the meeting.
“It was a very preliminary discussion,” Creagh said.
A North Hills extension would run from the Allegheny Station near Heinz Field to Cranberry, roughly following the path of Interstates 279 and 79, Creagh said. Seven stations would be built. He estimated the total cost for an 18-mile line at $1.385 billion.
Creagh said the project could alleviate traffic congestion and spur development in growing North Hills communities while revitalizing areas of Pittsburgh's East Allegheny neighborhood.
Creagh said the engineers based cost estimates on those for several recently proposed light-rail projects, ranging from $65 million per mile for one in Phoenix to $100 million per mile for one in Seattle. A North Hills project would cost about $77 million per mile.
By comparison, it could cost $20 million to $100 million — or $6.5 million to $33 million per mile — to develop a bus rapid transit, or BRT, line between Downtown and Oakland, said Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. The coalition of community-based organizations is among groups studying ways to provide faster, more efficient transit service than an ordinary bus line.
Creagh said he and DiMiceli did not produce a proposal to extend a T line to Pittsburgh International Airport.
Past discussion proposed extending a line along Route 65 and crossing the Ohio River en route to the airport, Fitzgerald said. He said officials would investigate whether it's possible to use any of the projected $500 million the county Airport Authority will get from natural-gas drilling at Pittsburgh International to develop a transit line to the airport. Federal rules require that money from the drilling lease with Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. be used for airport-related purposes.
Jake Haulk, president of Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, thinks the light-rail extensions would be warranted if the North Hills were more densely populated, airport traffic was booming and more federal transportation funding was available.
North Hills communities in the proposed light-rail corridor are home to about 132,000 people, or roughly 1,200 people per square mile, according to 2010 Census data. The region's population increased almost 9 percent since 2000.
By comparison, South Hills communities along the T are home to about 115,000 people, or more than 2,900 people per square mile, Census data show the region's population dropped about 3 percent since 2000.
Haulk said county officials should consider directing limited transportation funding toward alleviating congestion on the Parkways East and West, which present bigger traffic headaches for commuters than the Parkway North.
Haulk, whose organization studied and frequently criticized the North Shore Connector, questioned Creagh's cost estimate, noting the leg started out as a $240 million idea.
“I'd double any cost estimate they come up with,” Haulk said.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or email@example.com.