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Riverfront trail makes room for bikers, trains, anglers

| Sunday, March 3, 2002

Proponents of a recreational trail along Allegheny River Boulevard say it could return one of the premier projects of the "City Beautiful" movement of the 1920s to its original splendor.

And Clifford Berschneider speaks from personal experience. The 86-year-old Penn Hills resident can personally vouch for the allure of Allegheny River Boulevard in its heyday.

Berschneider, originally from the Homewood-Brushton section of Pittsburgh, was one of those in attendance last week to see an early draft of the proposed Allegheny Riverfront Trail that would run 17 miles from Arnold in the Alle-Kiski Valley into Pittsburgh — with four miles of that going through Penn Hills.

Urging officials not to "shortchange" the project, Berschneider recalled how the scenic roadway provided Pittsburghers with a chance to get away from the city for awhile.

"I remember way back when Allegheny River Boulevard was one of the most beautiful roadways in Pittsburgh, and we would drive back and forth along it just to enjoy the view," Berschneider said. "It's good that people are finally seeing the inherent beauty of our three rivers."

Landscape design architect Todd Chambers agreed with that assessment.

"There's a whole myriad of uses along this wonderful asset you have," Chambers told the Penn Hills Planning Commission. "There are some issues as to how much room you have between the railroad track and the riverbank."

Howard Davidson, Penn Hills' municipal planning and economic development director, remains pleased that even with the obvious overgrowth and neglect over the years, much of the boulevard has escaped heavy commercial development.

"The sycamore trees, the vistas and the stone turnouts are still there. And the steep slopes along most of the riverbank have helped to prevent development," Davidson said.

Davidson also doesn't believe that one of the major developments proposed for the area — magnetic levitation, or maglev, rail lines — will have an adverse impact on a riverfront recreational trail.

Trail project manager John Stephen pointed out to the planning commission that he is working with what amounts to a 60-foot right-of-way owned by the Allegheny Valley Railroad.

The Alle-Kiski Revitalization Corp. has teamed up with riverfront communities to apply for a $2 million to $3 million federal grant for acquiring the 8-foot-wide path that is envisioned, with buffer areas of trees, hedges and sometimes fencing and guardrails set up between trail and track.

Initial discussions with the railroad have used a negotiating price of $175,000 per mile, relatively cheap for riverfront property. The grant, available through the Transportation Enhancement Program, calls for a 20 percent local match on 80 percent federal funding.

While the decision to locate in Baltimore or Pittsburgh is still pending, Davidson noted that maglev designers are interested in the same stretch of shoreline along the Allegheny River.

"We're hoping there's room for everyone — bikers, hikers, freight trains, commuter trains, maglev and fishermen," Davidson said. "As long as we can get it on a 60-foot right-of-way, we should do all right. And we're hoping to have it done at the same time."

The projects are not incompatible, since maglev can install its tracks along relatively steep slopes that have inhibited development, leaving the conventional railroad and the trail on the level portion of right-of-way.

There also are proposed parking areas and parks under consideration, including "Sandy Creek Point," with a conceptual use study that includes a lighthouse, an observation platform, a pedestrian bridge crossing the actual stream and room for more than 70 cars.

A rock outcropping further upstream also provides an opportunity to incorporate the trail with the restored stone turnout near the Verona border.

While she thinks it's a "beautiful plan," Janice McAndrew of Penn Hills is concerned about the amount of traffic along Allegheny River Boulevard in recent years, and the safety of people trying to cross the roadway and even making turns into parking areas.

Chambers anticipates "at-grade crossings" along the railroad tracks, and does not rule out the possibility of pedestrian bridges across, or even underground walkways that use existing culvert networks.

"One of the things we're hoping to accomplish with this trail is getting the bicyclists off of Allegheny River Boulevard," Davidson said, noting that while people have to be careful crossing the road, traffic is not so severe as to prohibit it.

"The trail can only improve all of the situations we're talking about," Davidson said, noting that with the proposed designated parking areas, people wouldn't have to cross the roadway.

As for funding, the local communities will have to rely heavily on state and federal grants to get the project off the drawing board.

"We're very excited about how you're bringing this project to life," said planning commission Chairman Al V. Papa Jr. "And it all ties in with the turnouts being built and the trees being strategically planted, all for enhancing the vista in the 1920s and '30s. And now it could all be restored."

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