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What happened to commuter train?

| Saturday, May 22, 2004

With traffic on the Allegheny Valley Expressway tied in knots, many commuters are asking, whatever happened to the commuter train?

For several years, supporters of the train have been lobbying to complete a $400,000 feasibility study. They've got commitments for half the money.

Before we can lobby for federal, state and county money to get this train running, however, we need this final study to prove its doable.

Several years ago, Allegheny County Port Authority Transit executive director Paul Skoutelas visited with our editorial board, and told us that most commuter trains in the nation require a taxpayer subsidy of about $6 per person per trip, compared to a $2-$3 per person subsidy for buses and light rail. That's the day-to-day cost of operating it after it is up and running.

So county officials weren't big on the train - because of the high operating costs of a train.

But a new railcar has made the proposal much more attractive.

Last month, state Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont helped sponsor a demonstration ride of the new Colorado Railcar, which combines the engine and seats in one car.

According to Colorado Railcar supporters, operating costs are as much as 75 percent cheaper than traditional locomotive engines. The Colorado Railcar can travel 60 miles on 30 gallons of diesel, compared with 120 gallons for traditional engines, according to its manufacturer.

The $3 million commuter locomotive seats 92 passengers, but has a standing capacity of 200. And it can pull two other coach cars.

It may well be the commuter railcar of the future. It is currently being test-piloted in southern Florida, where state and federal officials launched a $13 million, two- year demonstration project of the railcar.

Dermody thinks the car is a perfect fit for this proposed A-K Commuter Train, from Arnold to Pittsburgh.

Light rail train cars, such as those in the South Hills, run on a different track than traditional rail trains, so would be unable to operate on the current Allegheny Valley Railroad line from Arnold to Pittsburgh.

Local state lawmakers have put about $12 million in the capital state budget for purchase of the train cars. But money in that budget must be released by the governor.

Dermody said train supporters are looking at an estimated cost of $30 million to get it up and running. That includes money for track upgrades, crossing upgrades and purchase of equipment.

The Colorado Railcar's lower-operating costs than a normal diesel train make this project more feasible.

But we'll never know how many people would ride it or what the subsidy would be until we do the detailed study.

Supporters of the commuter train hope to take 300 to 600 cars a day off the expressway.

The Valley is too dependent on the Expressway. We have no other good alternative routes when the Expressway is being fixed.

But this train certainly could help.

We urge local, county, state and federal officials to put their heads together to fund this important feasibility study.

We welcome responses to our editorials. Send them by mail, email, fax (724-226-4677) or by calling our 24-hour voice mail (724-226-7792).

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