Congress members submit wish lists for transit

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U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle is seeking $5.6 million in federal funding to begin planning extensions of the Light Rail Transit system to Pittsburgh International Airport and Oakland.

Rep. Jason Altmire has requested $19.2 million for improvements to the Freedom Road/Route 228 corridor stretching across Beaver and Butler counties, and $6 million to complete planning and design for commuter rail service from the Allegheny Valley to Downtown Pittsburgh.

Rep. Tim Murphy is asking for $8 million for reconstruction and widening of Painters Run Road between Robb Hollow and Bower Hill roads in Upper St. Clair.

Those requests were among nearly 7,000 submitted by members of Congress for inclusion in a forthcoming multiyear authorization bill for highway and transit projects.

The requests are officially called "high priority projects" but more commonly referred to as earmarks.

Congress this year is scheduled to debate a replacement for the current law, known as SAFETEA-LU, that authorizes highway, bridge and transit projects nationwide. It expires Sept. 30.

Earmark requests were submitted to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is drafting the legislation.

In prior years, members' requests for earmarks were confidential. This time around, they are required to post them on their Web sites.

"I think that transparency is a good thing. Some of the biggest abuses in the process [in the past] were transportation projects," said Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, citing the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," a $223 million earmark in the last highway bill for a project in Alaska that came to symbolize wasteful pork barrel spending.

"This is a way of having everything out there so the public can see it," said Mr. Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

Mr. Doyle, D-Forest Hills, submitted 21 funding requests. Mr. Altmire, who is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, submitted 40. Mr. Murphy submitted seven.

Members were required to submit extensive documentation for each request.

"The process is pretty intense," said Mr. Murphy. "This is by no means a wink-and-a-nod process."

The three congressmen said they relied primarily on local government leaders and agencies for input in developing their requests.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato last month announced that he would seek $7 million to begin planning transit extensions to the airport and Oakland.

He envisions the Downtown-to-Oakland line connecting to a circulator system -- possibly using technology similar to West Virginia University's Personal Rapid Transit system -- serving the Pittsburgh Technology Center, Oakland, Shadyside, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and the South Side.

The estimated development cost of the rail segments and circulator is $3.5 billion.

Asked if it is prudent to spend millions planning a project that might be considered a long shot to be built, Mr. Doyle said the idea is timely because of President Barack Obama's interest in developing high-speed passenger rail systems.

"It's a long-term project. Step one in any undertaking like this is to make sure you have a good study ... it's entirely appropriate to commence the required studies to see if it is feasible, the best way to do it, the most cost-effective way to do it."

Mr. Doyle said he expects that earmarks requested by members will make up less than 5 percent of the funding in the final bill.

Without the earmarking process, "local projects would never get funded," Mr. Murphy said. Decision-makers in Washington and Harrisburg "may not see the same priorities" as local leaders.

Mr. Altmire has said that improvements in the Freedom Road/Route 228 corridor and commuter rail from Arnold to Pittsburgh were his top transportation priorities.

He has asked for $12.7 million to upgrade the Crows Run corridor of Freedom Road from Route 65 to Route 989; $4 million for improvements to Route 228 at Interstate 79; and $2.5 million for Route 228 improvements from the Mars railroad bridge to the Mars-Valencia Road intersection.

"That is key to the ability to make that corridor work," he said. The Crows Run work "has been talked about for decades."

Among the other projects Mr. Doyle advanced were $2.5 million for a switchback ramp to connect the Mon Wharf trail, now under construction, to the Smithfield Street Bridge and $4.4 million for Point Park University's Wood Street Corridor upgrade.

U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hopes to have the highway bill to the full House for consideration next month, a timetable some see as overly ambitious.

Congress was nearly two years late in passing the current SAFETEA-LU measure.

Mr. Doyle's and Mr. Altmire's funding requests are on the home pages of their Web sites. Mr. Murphy's can be found by clicking "Constituent Services" and then "Surface Transportation Authorization of 2009."


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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