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Allegheny, Pittsburgh officials ponder $13M transit plan in East Liberty

| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

Allegheny County and Pittsburgh officials are considering a plan that would direct $13 million from potential tax revenue to bolster transportation infrastructure as part of a larger East Liberty development plan.

Called a Transit Revitalization Investment District, the plan would divert 75 percent of tax revenue from the county, city and Pittsburgh school district ­— similar to tax-increment financing — over 20 years to pay back loans connected to building infrastructure surrounding $345 million in potential East Liberty development.

County Council on Tuesday sent the transit plan to committee for consideration and will likely vote on it at a meeting later this month. Several council members said they needed to review the plan before commenting. Pittsburgh council and school board are also expected to vote this month.

“This (transit plan) is the linchpin of this redevelopment,” said Maurice Strul, assistant director of special projects and finance for the county. “What you're investing in is the public transit system. The money isn't going to Bakery Square or anything else. It's going for a parking garage and redevelopment of a current bus facility. Infrastructure is what is funded by this program.”

The money would fund a 550-space public parking garage connected to the Eastside III development, maintaining a new busway station, a new street that connects the Highland Avenue bridge to the Target store, the revamping of Penn Circle to convert all of it to two-way traffic, pedestrian improvements around Obama Academy and Highland Avenue, including increased lighting, safer cross-walks and signal upgrades.

Money would also be used for a public art piece that would be seen as motorists enter East Liberty from the east and a public plaza at Broad Street and Highland Avenue that could include a stage and green space.

Although Transit Revitalization Investment Districts were authorized by the state in 2004, the East Liberty plan is believed to be the first in the state. Unlike tax-increment financing projects, the transit districts do not have to be designated as blighted.

Tax-increment financing can be a controversial issue because money that would otherwise be paid in taxes goes toward the project.

Robert Rubinstein, acting executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said without the public subsidy, the project would not be feasible.“There's still lots of obsolete and dysfunctional infrastructure in the district. This is a good way to fix those problems,” he said.

The planned $345 million in development involves seven projects: Eastside III and Bakery Square 2.0, which include housing and retail space; renovating the former YMCA into a hotel; rehabbing two historic buildings; constructing a two-level cineplex with a restaurant; construction of a hotel at Highland Avenue and Broad Street; and construction of East Liberty Place South for low-income housing.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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