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Port Authority steps closer to linking Oakland and Downtown, makes switch from Highmark to Aetna

| Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, 1:57 p.m.

Plans for an express bus system linking Oakland and Downtown took a step forward Friday as city, county and transit leaders agreed who would foot the bill.

Port Authority board members also approved last week's committee recommendation to switch health care coverage for Port Authority employees from Highmark to Aetna, a move expected to save $6.5 million.

The bus system moved closer to reality as board members approved a memorandum of understanding among themselves, city and county government and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh that pledges the first $2 million in county funds.

Developers said the whole project would cost between $180 and $200 million.

The bus rapid transit project, still three to four years from breaking ground, would connect the two neighborhoods in lieu of a light rail system, which officials estimate would cost $800 million to $1.4 billion.

“We would all love a light rail,” Port Authority chairman Robert Hurley said. “But the city just doesn't have that kind of money right now.”

Port Authority will cover the cost of buses and terminals alone, estimated at around $60 million. Stops under consideration include Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Consol Energy Center. A stop also could go in Uptown and another at Kirkpatrick Street near the Birmingham Bridge in the Hill District.

The city, the county the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Port Authority will jointly apply for highly competitive grants that could fund up to $75 million of the total cost, according to Port Authority officials. To apply, the group must complete environmental and revitalization studies, which should take 22 months, McLean said.

Additional funding will come from federal, state and local grants and financing options. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has said he expects the foundation community and private sector to contribute as well.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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