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Westmoreland to Pittsburgh rail transit outlook strong, study finds

(The following story by Rich Cholodofsky appeared on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on June 30, 2009.)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. A consultant hired by the Westmoreland County Transit Authority said during a public hearing Monday night that train service could potentially start tomorrow between Latrobe and Greensburg to Pittsburgh.

Officials during the first of two public sessions presented the results of a $500,000 study that found enough potential riders for rail service on two lines: Latrobe to Pittsburgh and from Arnold to Pittsburgh.

Although much of the infrastructure for the Greensburg rail line appears to be in place, more work has to be done to determine a better estimate of potential riders as well as whether the existing rail lines in Pittsburgh, specifically in the Shadyside area, can sustain the dramatic increase in traffic.

"We feel there is enough ridership to justify a startup system at this time," said Bill Novak, a consultant with HDR Inc., the company hired by the authority to perform a feasibility study of the proposed rail line.

The line would begin in Latrobe and travel through Greensburg, Jeannette, Irwin and Trafford. Trains would travel on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern.

The freight company has said it won't commit to allowing commuter service on its rails until it can better determine what effect the additional trains would have on its existing operation, Novak said.

Local officials conceded the study of Norfolk Southern's rail capacity, which would include looking at the company's freight service from Ohio to Harrisburg, is essential before advancing the commuter rail project.

"That could be a make or break for us," transit authority Executive Director Larry Morris said.

He said there is no timetable or costs associated with the Norfolk Southern study or a more comprehensive market review to determine up-to-date rider estimates.

The HDR feasibility study determined there could be about 1,500 riders a day initially on the Greensburg line.

Overall, the proposed 42-mile railway would use existing train stations in Latrobe and Greensburg and build new platform stations near Second Avenue in downtown Jeannette, at the far end of Main Street in downtown Irwin and along Turtle Creek, near Route 48 in the Trafford area. The proposal also calls for construction of a $13 million maintenance facility in Derry.

The 65-minute trip into Pittsburgh could include a stop in Shadyside, near the East Busway station. The line would terminate at Penn Station in downtown Pittsburgh.

Overall, the proposed rail lines, including a 19.5-mile portion that would travel tracks owned by Allegheny Valley Railroad along the Allegheny River, is estimated to cost a combined $208 million.

Novak said a total of more 5,000 riders could travel the rails each day.

But the Arnold-to-Pittsburgh portion of the service would be costlier and take longer to complete. The track, used for freight service, would need to be completely replaced, Novak said.

More than a dozen people interested in the rail proposal came out to hear details last night at the public session at the courthouse in Greensburg.

Alex Graziani, executive director of Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County, said he favored the rail proposal as part of a larger regional transportation network.

"Smart Growth advocates transportation options. The more options we have, the better it is. We're a very automotive-dependent county, and now we're not prepared for any other mode of transportation," Graziani said.

Stephanie Kuzmkowski of Greensburg said she is not a regular commuter but favors implementing rail service.

"I would like the option of taking a train instead of driving and paying to park," Kuzmkowski said.

The authority will conduct another public hearing at 6 this evening at city hall in New Kensington.

Transit officials said they will post the full feasibility study on the authority's Web site this week.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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