Lower Burrell-to-Pittsburgh rail service draws private funding

Saturday, October 1, 2011

About the writer

Michael Aubele is a Valley News Dispatch staff writer and can be reached at 724-226-4673 or via e-mail.

A proposed commuter rail service connecting Lower Burrell and Pittsburgh has attracted private funding to cover half its estimated $350 million cost, a project consultant said.

Cleveland-based First Service Commercial Loans Inc. will supply the financing with the expectation that government funds account for the remainder, said Robert Ardolino, president of Urban Innovations, the Pittsburgh-based consulting agency that is coordinating the project.

Efforts to confirm the information with First Service were unsuccessful. A company official didn’t return calls for comment.

“It’s going to happen this time,” Ardolino said.

The project has been in the works for more than a decade, having gone through several studies and as recently as May 2010 attracting a similar private-equity commitment from an unnamed firm in Georgia.

Asked what happened to the deal with the lender in Georgia, Ardolino said, “We got a better proposal from this other firm. The way (First Service) wants to give us the money is better than the way the other folks wanted to give us the money.”

As for the government match, Ardolino said he’s confident the majority will come through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start grant program. Ardolino claims that the government’s commitment could come within a year.

A transit administration official said an application for project funding hasn’t been submitted.

“The FTA’s role in this process is just now getting started,” said Richard Carbo, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless. “The next step in this process will be the effort to secure the federal match.”

Altmire, who long has been a project supporter, said he was excited by the news that private financing presented itself and pledged to see the project through “to the end.”

“This project is a culmination of years of work between the public and private sectors to improve transportation in Western Pennsylvania and create good-paying jobs,” he said. “Congestion on our crumbling infrastructure and fuel costs have been a burden on this area, and this new commuter rail will ignite our local economy.”

The line would operate on tracks along the Allegheny River owned by Allegheny Valley Railroad Co., which runs freight service at night to 19 local companies. That freight service would continue at night after commuter service ends.

Projected stops along the way in Valley communities would include Arnold, New Kensington and Oakmont.

“This is a game-changer for those people who live in the Alle-Kiski Valley because it will provide an alternative to vehicles on the highway,” said Russell Peterson, CEO of Carload Express Inc., the railroad’s parent company. He suggested the commuter rail will remove half the rush-hour congestion on the Route 28 corridor.

“This is an idea that has had tremendous grassroots support,” Peterson said. “Financing a project of this size has gotten more challenging, although the public-private partnership concept has really given this momentum.”

Peterson and Ardolino said plans are to extend the line into the Braeburn section of Lower Burrell and run it to Steel Plaza or the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

They acknowledged that a challenge exists in extending the tracks from their current endpoint in the Strip District because the proposal will have to cross environmental, financial and political hurdles.

Ardolino said the overall project should reach its construction phase in early 2013.

In terms of economic impact, Ardolino believes the project will generate more than $750 million in development along the line and create more than 1,000 jobs.

“It will be mixed-use,” he said. “We’ll see housing, retail, commercial and some industrial development. And, hopefully, we’ll generate some more freight customers for (Allegheny Valley Railroad.)”

State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, who also has been a longtime project proponent, said, “This is great news.”

He, too, is confident the project will “attract usage” and as a result reduce traffic and create jobs.

“This is a good project,” he said. “The studies we’ve done show that it works.”

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