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Alle-Kiski Valley link to Downtown picks up steam

| Monday, Feb. 6, 2012

Robert Ardolino is making believers out of skeptics.

Count among them Penn State New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider, who said Ardolino recently encountered a roomful of doubt when he spoke to the members of Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth about plans to run a commuter rail between Lower Burrell and Pittsburgh.

By June 2016, Ardolino, a consultant with Pittsburgh-based Urban Innovations, expects commuters to be traveling between the Alle-Kiski Valley and Pittsburgh on the rail, paying $14 per round-trip from endpoint to endpoint.

It's a $380 million project.

"They were very skeptical at first," Snider said. "Everybody thought the train had to live and die solely on ridership. It turns out that's not the case, and everybody left very impressed and really excited."

Ardolino is, too. He says plenty of commuters would support the rail -- an estimated 7,000 per day, according to his most recent study -- but that branding rights, station development and commercial and residential development along the 22.5-mile corridor would generate the bulk of the revenue that keeps the line viable.

How much revenue could the rail generate during its first 20 to 25 years of operation when all of the potential development is factored in• Ardolino estimated $1.5 billion.

Ardolino said he has used $36.7 million in private money to acquire the rights of way through a nonprofit he established. He said he has "signed commitments" with Allegheny Valley Railroad to buy the tracks, real estate and easements. The two sections of property he still needs are the endpoints in Lower Burrell and at Steel Plaza in Downtown Pittsburgh.

He said he's in negotiations with developer Gary Sukala to acquire right of way in Lower Burrell, which would be the rail's endpoint and a spot where Ardolino envisions a business park or light industry center.

"There are about 100 acres there that are flat and could be used," Ardolino said, adding it could be within three to five years after the line is built that the property gets developed.

Sukala said he and Ardolino have been "in discussions" for about six months and "everything seems in line."

Ardolino will need to acquire about 1.5 miles of right of way for the rail line, Sukala said, adding that the line would extend only about a quarter-mile north of the Tarentum Bridge.

Sukala couldn't say how much he would sell the right of way for, indicating a dollar figure hasn't been set.

"How could you not be for this?" Sukala asked.

Financial backing

Investors seem to agree.

Cleveland-based First Service Commercial Loans has committed as much as $350 million to the project and a charitable organization in Texas plans to pledge up to about $100 million, Ardolino said. He declined to identify the Texas group until the deal is finalized.

Ardolino said he plans to meet in Washington next month with congressional leaders, including Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, to push for government funding.

"I've been in close contact and continue to actively work to promote the project," Altmire said. "Last year, we were able to secure the funding that was used to confirm that the project is viable, and our next step is a stable, long-term funding source. This is one of my top regional transportation priorities."

Ardolino hopes to obtain at least $245 million in federal grants, with most of that coming through the Federal Transit Administration. He expects to submit a grant application through the federal New Starts program in June.

The amount of private money to be used on the project depends on how much federal money is obtained. Private investors would make up the difference between that and the $380 million estimated cost. If the government kicks in $245 million, for example, First Service and others would pay the remaining $135 million.

Ardolino said the project's environmental impact is being assessed. The proposal won't enter its final engineering stage until a year from now, and the 18-month construction period won't begin until 2014.

Ardolino, who is overseeing the project for rail line owner Russ Peterson, said freight trains would continue to run along the line from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

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