The local developer advocating commuter rail between Pittsburgh and Lower Burrell overlooks the public pocket-picking flaw it shares with New Jersey Transit's River LINE light-rail system, which he touts as a model: If it's such a great idea, why does it rely so heavily on public subsidies?
Parallels between the service Robert Ardolino proposes and New Jersey's include routes along rivers (the Allegheny and the Delaware) and tracks shared with overnight freight service. But the telling likeness is how small a role private investment plays.
New Jersey Transit can't say just how much of its lump-sum annual state subsidy its River LINE receives but the agency was paid $3.40 per passenger trip overall in 2011 and the River LINE's $1.50 Trenton-to-Camden fare is heavily subsidized. The Garden State also financed River LINE's approximately $1 billion construction cost.
Mr. Ardolino expects federal grants to pay most of his Alle-Kiski Valley project's estimated $380 million cost. He says it also would need a state subsidy of 88 cents per passenger mile traveled — four times what the Federal Transportation Administration says is the average commuter-rail subsidy. And even optimistically projecting 9,900 weekday riders — 1,200 more than River LINE — the one-way fare is expected to be about $7.
Such heavy reliance on public money is a sure indicator that a project isn't financially viable — and shouldn't burden taxpayers. And that means that Ardolino's proposal must never leave the station.
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