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Erie group seeks study of high-speed rail to Pittsburgh

| Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, 5:42 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Brian Pitzer of Edinboro is trying to raise interest and money for a high-speed rail line from Pittsburgh to Erie. He is planning to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a consulting study to further explore the idea. Pitzer sits for a portrait in the Beaver Train Station on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Brian Pitzer of Edinboro is trying to raise interest and money for a high-speed rail line from Pittsburgh to Erie. He is planning to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a consulting study to further explore the idea. Pitzer sits for a portrait in the Beaver Train Station on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Brian Pitzer of Edinboro is trying to raise interest and money for a high-speed rail line from Pittsburgh to Erie. He is planning to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a consulting study to further explore the idea. Pitzer stands for a portrait outside the Beaver Area Heritage Museum on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.

Brian Pitzer wrapped up his Power Point presentation in the Squirrel Hill library's meeting room and opened the floor to questions.

He spent the previous 30 minutes — not to mention the past six years — selling his vision of a high-speed rail line between Erie and Pittsburgh.

One of the first questions was how many members his group, All Aboard Erie, has.

“You're looking at about the size of the group,” Pitzer said with a laugh. The six railroad enthusiasts in the audience chuckled, nodded and continued to offer insight.

Pitzer, 64, of Edinboro is a one-time higher education communication professional with a passion for rail and Western Pennsylvania. He stopped in Pittsburgh this summer as a guest of the Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, a group that advocates for more trains.

Pitzer's immediate goal is to raise $25,000 for a consulting study on a high-speed line connecting Pennsylvania's second-largest city to the hub of its northwest corner along the Interstate 79 corridor. He says the study would take six to eight weeks and outline potential route and ridership levels.

High-speed rail lines are nascent in the United States; in Europe and Asia, trains traveling as fast as 220 mph connect urban areas. Groups such as All Aboard Ohio and the Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance push similar citizen-led efforts.

“By doing the route study, we hope to move the conversation forward to the tipping point where the public interest will make high-speed rail a reality,” he said.

Pitzer often pitches to local community development organizations, municipal governments and foundations. So far, he has raised about $6,000, including a $2,500 donation from the First Energy Foundation. He received $2,000 from the Erie Community Foundation. Erie County Council unanimously approved a $1,000 grant in September 2014.

This fall, Pitzer plans to initiate a crowd-funding campaign to earn more to put toward the study. His Facebook page has about 1,100 likes.

“Some have liked it, some have just said, ‘That's nice,' ” he said. “But every step we take builds our case.”

A PennDOT train analysis in 2001 labeled Pittsburgh to Erie a “medium” priority. Spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said new infrastructure would have to take construction costs and ridership into consideration.

“PennDOT would also evaluate whether potential riders have existing options such as highway access, bus and transit services,” Waters-Trasatt said.

In February, the agency released a study examining rail improvements on Keystone West, the corridor from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. Improvement costs ranged from $1.5 billion to $38 billion, which many deemed out of reach.

Mark Spado, a board member with Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, said Pitzer's proposal is “a very long-term effort.” His group is on a mission to increase the frequency of train service from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, which he says has a greater chance of happening.

Pitzer has contacted Transportation Engineering and Management Systems, a Maryland-based firm that has handled rail studies elsewhere. Alex Metcalf, the company's executive director, said the first step is analyzing whether routes are profitable, he said.

“We would like to see people build passenger rail that makes financial and economic sense,” Metcalf said.

In this case, Metcalf said Pittsburgh's recent resurgence in technology and finance could merit connections to other metro areas.

“We think there's a real possibility this Erie-to-Pittsburgh piece will go down well,” he said.

Spreading the word about rail is a familiar pastime for Pitzer, who once spent a summer in college working the midnight shift at Pullman Standard rail car company in Butler making $3.13 an hour. In the 1970s, he wrote to the town councils of Linesville and Jamestown requesting they urge the governor to stop the removal of a rail line between Erie and Greenville, but his effort failed.

“The terrible irony of that loss is that if that track existed today, it would likely be a prime candidate for the Erie-to-Pittsburgh route study,” Pitzer said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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