Groups want to revive light-rail to Oakland

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An old proposal to extend the light-rail system from Downtown to Oakland will be revived today when a public advocacy group, elected officials and others present a study in support of mass transit.

The project will be offered by the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group as a means of achieving recommendations in its 72-page document titled, "A Better Way to Go: Meeting America's 21st Century Transportation Challenges with Modern Public Transit."

"The report shows why we need to boost funding for public transportation and move ahead with projects like a light-rail extension to Oakland," PennPIRG Director James Browning said. "It shows how public transit reduces oil dependence, traffic congestion and global warming pollution."

Others announced as attending the 11 a.m. news conference at the United Steelworkers Building, Downtown, are Reps. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview, and representatives of the Sierra Club, Mon Valley Unemployed Committee and Local 3 of the Service Employees International Union.

According to the report, the region's three biggest transit agencies -- the Port Authority, Beaver County Transit Authority and Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority -- save 5.4 million gallons of fuel a year that would otherwise be used by people driving personal vehicles. At current prices of about $3.25 a gallon for regular-grade gasoline, that translates into about $18 million in cash savings.

Riding buses and trolleys also reduces carbon dioxide emissions in the region by an estimated 22,000 tons annually, the researchers concluded.

While PennPIRG will focus on Pittsburgh today, its study is national in scope and is being released elsewhere. The study said U.S. transit operations save 3.4 billion gallons of fuel a year, prevent 541 million hours of traffic delays and cut global warming pollution gases by 26 million tons.

A light-rail line between Downtown and Oakland -- two of the state's busiest transit centers -- was first proposed in the mid-1970s while officials were still engaged in controversy over plans to replace the old South Hills streetcar lines with an elevated, rubber-tire Skybus people mover. At the time, it was called the "Spine Line" because, on paper, the preferred route resembled the curvature of a person's backbone.

The project advanced through several time-consuming, federally mandated planning steps called a "needs study" to justify the cost and the preparation and evaluation of preliminary routes.

The last board of commissioners before Allegheny County moved to a home rule form of government ordered the Port Authority to drop the project, along with an option to extend light-rail to the North Shore.

The North Shore segment was restored about a year later and the 1.2-mile, $435 million project is currently under construction, with 80 percent of the cost being paid by the Federal Transit Administration.

The last ballpark estimate to build a line between Downtown and Oakland was about $750 million and was made about 15 years ago. Also, the FTA now pays only 60 percent of such new capital projects.

Joe Grata can be reached at .


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