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Pittsburgh councilman pushes north-south city rail system

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It usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to drive to Carnegie Mellon University from the former LTV site in Hazelwood. That commute could take six minutes by train. Pittsburgh Councilman William Peduto has envisioned the train, and planners have deemed it feasible, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

The week of Oct. 27, Rich
Feder, of Whitman, Requardt & Associates, showed City Council how a
north-south link from Hazelwood to Oakland to Baum-Centre to Lawrenceville
would fit into a regional scheme and fuel investment in Hazelwood’s industrial
corridor.

The diesel-fueled mode
would follow existing tracks owned by CSX Transportation, now leased by the
Allegheny Valley Railroad. Once in place, it would connect to the Port
Authority’s busway, bike trails and a high-speed rail connector that Bombardier
wants to build from SouthSide Works to Hazelwood. The Urban Redevelopment
Authority has agreed to be Bombardier’s agent to get state funding.

Feder said the north-south
connector would have to fit an intermodal network, have regional consensus,
public-private cooperation and a financing plan. The railroad’s cooperation
could be the biggest hurdle.

"CSXT is a tough
negotiator," said Bill Widdoes, project manager for the Regional
Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania. RIDC is an owning
partner, along with four foundations, of the former LTV Hazelwood Works
property — the development prize on the proposed commuter line.

CSXT spokesmen could not be
reached for comment.

Peduto said the $81 million
price tag puts the project within reach in less than a decade. "If we can
get the sign-off from the [Southwest Pennsylvania Commission] — and I am a
commissioner — and if we can make it a priority plan, that’s key. The new
transportation act coming through Congress is looking for projects such as
this.

"We would be able to
find a way to do the local match of $16 million," seeking funding from
institutions, foundations and companies, he said. "What we can offer them
is assistance in building parking garages on either end as feeders for people
on the parkway and Route 28."

Councilman Patrick Dowd
said he wants many more opportunities for public comment, something Peduto
assured. "This is just the feasibility stage."

As part of his council
legacy, this project is dear to Peduto, who has named the train "the
Monongaheny Express" and imagines its color scheme the red, yellow and
black of Mister Rogers’ trolley. He calls it "the most important piece in
the puzzle completing a regional rail line system."

"This is an
opportunity to connect neighborhoods from river to river," he said.

Oakland, which Mr. Peduto
described as "bursting at the seams," is the reason the plan may get
momentum, said Feder.

For years, cost and terrain
have inhibited east-west transit plans, leaving Oakland high and dry. A plan to
serve Oakland from Downtown was abbreviated into a nub — the North Shore
connector, a $538-million project that extends the subway system under the
Allegheny River to the North Shore.

Compare that cost to $81
million to link four neighborhoods that are in the midst of, or ripe for,
development, said Peduto.

Widdoes said the LTV
property — the largest undeveloped site in the city at 178 acres — and RIDC’s
Lawrenceville properties near the Allegheny River are itching for transit
connections.

"CMU and UPMC are
already invested in Lawrenceville, and so we just think that connecting those
dots is crucial, and momentum is key. Lawrenceville has some right now."

On the other end, he said, "developers
and institutions have told us that, if and when the transit link is developed
between Oakland and Hazelwood, they’ll be there."

Negotiations for use of the
track will be "long and contentious," he said. "But that is not
meant to temper our enthusiasm. This track goes from New Castle to Washington,
Pa., through Oakland. Think about that as a commuter line. That has
impact" for economic development.

Feder called the
"Monongaheny" connector "a reasonably cost-effective project
that satisfies the goals."

"The $81 million
compares favorably to other cities," he said. Using estimates based on the
Southwest Pennsylvania Commission’s regional models for population and
employment projections 25 years hence, the study compared cost and ridership by
rail in Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Albuquerque, Portland and
Nashville. Pittsburgh’s cost is the second-lowest, after Nashville’s, and its
ridership is projected to be more than three times Nashville’s.

Jim Richter, executive
director of the Hazelwood Initiative, a nonprofit community development
corporation, said Hazelwood "would definitely" benefit from a quick
transit link to Oakland, but he said he questions the efficiency of heavy rail
as a piece of a regional intermodal system.

"With only four stops,
it’s not real clear how many people would be able to take advantage of this
[unless] it’s just for the purpose of having park-and-ride lots on the outskirts
and going to Oakland or Lawrenceville for employment."

Widdoes said the financial
projections assume negotiations go well with the railroad. CSXT "has the
right to ask for a lot of money" and concessions, he said. "Hopefully
there’s an olive branch somewhere. It would sure be nice to know it’s
coming."

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