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Cost of rail line linking Greensburg, Arnold with Pittsburgh lower than expected

| Saturday, June 20, 2009

Westmoreland County transit officials are poised to begin planning for two commuter rail lines that would link Greensburg and Arnold with Pittsburgh.

Officials on Friday made public the findings of a feasibility study that concludes there is sufficient potential ridership for both branches of the rail line. The study recommends continued planning and financing studies.

In the report issued by HDR Inc. of Pittsburgh, the estimated costs to build and operate the trains are far less than initial estimates. The revised estimates found that both branches could be built for $208.7 million, and another $22.5 million would be needed to operate the service. Operations could be funded partially through fare revenues.

Officials initially anticipated the costs to build the rail line would exceed $330 million.

"I'm encouraged, and I'm cautiously optimistic about how realistic it is to attain," said Frank Tosto Jr., chairman of Westmoreland County Transit Authority.

The 15-month study found that one branch of the train could run on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern, which operates a freight line through Westmoreland County. The proposed commuter line would begin in Latrobe and stop in Greensburg, Jeannette, Irwin and Trafford; the line would end at Penn Station in downtown Pittsburgh.

The commuter line could have at least 1,500 passengers ride each day into Pittsburgh, though officials said that number is conservative and could be much higher.

The trip from Latrobe to downtown Pittsburgh would take 60 to 65 minutes.

The second branch of the rail line would travel on tracks owned by AVR, which operates a freight line along the Allegheny River. The proposed line would originate in Arnold and stop in New Kensington, Oakmont, Verona and Penn Hills before ending in downtown Pittsburgh, also at Penn Station.

The study estimates the Arnold-to-Pittsburgh route would take 45 minutes and attract at least 2,700 daily riders.

Both branches might include stops in Shadyside, according to the study.

"Although more detailed analysis is needed, it appears that there is capacity sufficient to accommodate some level of commuter-rail service on both lines," the study said.

Consultants said more study is needed to determine when commuter trains can run on the Norfolk Southern line to ensure the company's freight service would not be interrupted.

A more detailed market study is needed to provide more accurate ridership estimates. And a decision must be made about which public agency would operate the service.

Meanwhile, the consultants recommend that authority officials should explore state and local funding to pay for the rail line. Federal funding might take too long to secure, according to the findings.

State Rep. John Pallone, D-New Kensington, is a member of the authority's commuter-rail steering committee. He said yesterday that securing funding is the next big hurdle, but something that he expects is possible.

"It's a matter of time, but we're on track to get a commuter rail. We have to move into the next phase, and we're working on that," Pallone said.

Larry Morris, executive director of the transit authority, said no timetable is in place to begin the next phase of the project.

The study will be made public at the end of the month.

Public hearings will be held June 29 at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg and June 30 at city hall in New Kensington.

Public comments will be accepted from 6 to 9 p.m. at both hearings. A formal presentation will be conducted at 7:30 p.m. at both sessions.

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