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Allegheny Valley Railroad commuter train project steams ahead

| Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shadyside resident Richard Goldman welcomes Allegheny Valley Railroad's plan to run commuter trains from Downtown Pittsburgh to Verona, Oakmont, New Kensington and Arnold.

"If they could figure out a rail commute to take cars off of Allegheny River Boulevard or Route 28, that would be wonderful," said Goldman, 61, who co-owns Mystery Lover's Bookshop in Oakmont. "From the store's perspective, a train that would deliver people to our doorstep couldn't be a bad thing."

AVR officials are working on a $228 million plan that would run diesel-powered trains along their freight tracks between Arnold and the Strip District. The trains would travel along tracks embedded in 26th Street in the Strip to the East Busway, then connect to the unused section of Port Authority's light-rail and go directly to an empty platform at Steel Plaza subway station, said railroad CEO Russell Peterson.

"This would bring substantial new ridership to the 'T' at its busiest station," Peterson said.

The short-line freight railroad, which runs mostly at night, has been studied as a potential commuter-rail carrier since at least 2003.

Urban Innovations CEO Robert Ardolino said the project his company is planning could be running as early as fall 2013, with help from $171 million in private financing by an investment banking firm in Georgia. Aside from seeking Port Authority's cooperation to plan the final leg of the line, Ardolino said the venture would not ask for funding from the cash-strapped transit agency.

"We're trying to keep Port Authority out of this equation," he said. "They have a role, but we'd rather not burden the authority any further."

Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said officials would "remain open to future discussions" about the commuter line. Allegheny County spokesman Kevin Evanto said the county would work with railroad, Port Authority and Westmoreland County officials as the project moves toward planning who would run the system and how fares would be set, collected and divided.

The light-rail line between Steel Plaza and the Downtown end of the East Busway hasn't carried passengers since 2007, when rush-hour trains to Penn Station were discontinued. To run commuter trains there, railroad officials would have to lay new tracks along 26th Street, up the busway ramp, and widen tracks through an underground tunnel to Steel Plaza.

Port Authority's police station and a lounge for bus drivers would need to be removed from the edge of the busway, but Ardolino said they could be rebuilt nearby as part of a transfer station where riders could catch buses to the East End or Oakland.

Converting Port Authority's portion of the tracks would cost about $28 million, while the AVR's tracks would get $56 million in upgrades, Ardolino said. AVR may start seeking state or federal funding but would need lawmakers to pass legislation allowing public-private partnerships between companies and local governments, he said.

State Rep. Joe Markosek, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said allowing such "P3" partnerships likely would be part of the transportation-funding package legislators hope to consider this fall.

"The issue with P3s in general is that... there is still a public-funding aspect of each project," said Markosek, D-Monroeville. "Coming up with the public side is going to be very difficult under our current circumstances."

The passenger trains would look like bigger, diesel-powered versions of Port Authority's light-rail trolleys, with seating for about 70 passengers per vehicle, Peterson said.

A similar commuter-rail proposal by Westmoreland County Transit, which would have shared tracks with Norfolk Southern and ended at Penn Station, appears to have lost steam.

"It's highly unlikely Norfolk Southern will allow commuter rail on their tracks," he said. "There's too much freight using that corridor ... the liability costs are too prohibitive."

On the lightlyused AVR tracks, passenger trains and freight operations would be kept separate: freight trains would only run between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. while passenger service would run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Peterson said.

"I'd be all for it if it would be mostly self-supporting," said Craig Betler, 37, of Oakmont. "When I used to work in the city, I would have liked better transit options than just the bus."

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