Oakland transit line explored

County seeking public-private development partnership

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A task force created by Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato is launching a worldwide appeal for private investors willing to develop a Downtown-to-Oakland transit line and a people mover system that initially would link several Oakland destinations.

Investors are being invited to submit ideas for financing and building such a system in exchange for development rights along the two corridors and/or revenue generated from fares.

The plan seeks to capitalize on a growing movement toward public-private partnerships to build transportation improvements that traditionally have been government-funded.

The initiative has broad-based support among local government, business, university and hospital leaders, said Dennis Davin, county economic development director.

"This is real. This is going to happen, one way or another," he predicted Tuesday.

The county Transportation Action Partnership, an outgrowth of a panel created by Mr. Onorato four years ago, has established a website, www.pittsburgh-oaklandconnector.com, with project background and demographic information for prospective investors. It will hold a Web seminar on Monday outlining the proposal and inviting questions.

It will ask for expressions of interest by the end of April.

"In an environment of limited public dollars, we must be creative and innovative in order to expand transit and improve mobility in and between southwestern Pennsylvania's two largest economic centers," Mr. Onorato said.

The plan offers three possible corridors for a Downtown-Oakland link, which could be light-rail, an elevated people mover or rapid bus, which imitates a subway with its limited stops, dedicated lanes and stations.

The corridors are along Centre Avenue, Second Avenue and Colwell Street/Fifth Avenue.

The Colwell Street/Fifth Avenue corridor appears to offer the best development potential and is the most direct route, Mr. Davin said.

A people mover, likely an elevated system similar to West Virginia University's Personal Rapid Transit, would initially go from Carnegie Mellon University through the heart of Oakland and on to the Pittsburgh Technology Center, which fronts the Monongahela River.

That system eventually could be expanded to the South Side, Shadyside and the University of Pittsburgh's upper campus, including the Petersen Events Center.

"We're trying to leave it as open as possible to see what comes back to us," Mr. Davin said.

"We want to hear what the transportation finance industry says is important to them," said Lynn Heckman, county assistant development director for transportation initiatives.

If there is interest, prospective investors will be invited to prepare more detailed proposals for developing and financing the transit links.

Mr. Davin was reluctant to offer a construction timetable but said it was possible "within 2 1/2 years we would have at least the beginnings of some development."

University officials in Oakland are hungry for room to expand, and the most likely directions for that growth are toward Downtown and at the riverfront, said Kevin Evanto, Mr. Onorato's spokesman.

"Downtown and Oakland have no room to grow except toward each other," he said.

The Colwell Street corridor, three miles long, begins near the new Downtown arena and ends in the heart of Oakland. The Centre Avenue corridor is longer and could require tunneling, making it more expensive, while the Second Avenue corridor is not as ripe for development, Mr. Davin said.

The partnership's executive committee includes representatives from Pitt, UPMC, private businesses, labor, government and The Heinz Endowments, which paid for the consulting work that is being made available to investors.

The effort is co-chaired by Mr. Davin, Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and Dennis Yablonsky, executive director of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

A key to the effort is showing investors that the entire community is behind it, Mr. Davin said.

"Everybody's going in the same direction," he said. "All the major stakeholders believe this is really something important that we need to do. That's huge."

Ms. Heckman said the group will push for state legislation allowing public-private partnerships and authorizing a new city-county entity, similar to the Sports & Exhibition Authority, to oversee the project.

Public-private partnerships have been pitched by Gov. Ed Rendell and others as a way to fund transportation and infrastructure improvements across the U.S. at a time of scarce government resources. They have been used overseas for decades.

A group of investment banking and law firms reported last year that $180 billion in private capital was available for transportation infrastructure investment.

Texas, Florida and Virginia have tapped private capital to build major highway expansions. A private consortium is largely funding development of a 3.4-mile light-rail system in downtown Detroit, with construction expected to begin this year.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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