Thursday, July 29, 2010

Breaking Down the AVR Proposal Part 1

I’ve been critical of AVR’s plan for commuter rail.  That’s not to say that there isn’t value to what they are doing.  With that in mind I’ve put together some of what I feel are issues/risks/opportunities for this proposal.  I broke the proposal down into construction and operation.  The first installment will cover construction and each section will lay out potential issues and opportunities (if applicable) 

Keep in mind as well, there is no public report available for this.  I’ve gathered my ideas and thoughts through articles and material available on the internet.  There are no concrete figures save the $171million “private loan” and the $228 million overall cost.  Beyond that, there is currently no detail available. 



There aren’t many major issues with the construction of stations from Arnold, PA to 26th St. in the Strip. 

There are just a couple of concerns that I think it is important to highlight.

Tarentum Bridge Stop:  One of the issues AVR has apparently taken with the current Commuter Rail study is the lack of a stop past the current end of track in Arnold, PA.  They want to extend the route, approximately a mile north along the river to a stop around the Tarentum Bridge.    

While I don’t have a problem with this in theory, geography makes implementation tricky, and probably expensive.  The east side of the Allegheny River under the bridge is just a thin strip of flat land, with a steep hillside to one side and the river to the other.  There is enough land for at least one track, as this is the former PRR Railroad Allegheny Division right of way.  The tracks are gone, but the right of way is still intact.  However, there is little room for a station with parking and multiple tracks.  Additionally, gaining auto access to this strip of land would be challenging.  If the designers envision direct access from the Tarentum bridge (which I am guessing they will), steep ramps will have to be built from the bridge.  These ramps will need to provide enough clearance for Tugs to operate underneath them.  It can be done, but it would be expensive.  Again, there is no word whether this cost is included in the $228 million figure quoted in the Trib/Post Gazette. 

Another option that could be used would be to either make an access road off of Lower Braeburn Road in Lower Burrell or move the station further north so that it would be situated at the bottom of Lower Braeburn Road.  Both of these have potential issues as well.  I am still not sure there’s enough room underneath the bridge itself for a station, even without using ramps off of the bridge.  Also, with the second option, you will lose the convenience option.  I am betting they are trying to capitalize on the ease of travel to the Tarentum Bridge and therefore maximize on ridership.  If people have to drive out of their way to get to a station that is isolated by geography then there is no real reason to spend the money to put it there.

26th St. Intermodal Terminal:  26th Street is a decision point for the AVR.  They will either keep to their ROW to 16th street, or leave their right of way at 26th St, travel at grade on 26th street and join the Busway on the far side of Liberty.  

If the latter is chosen, this point could become particularly important.  According to this idea, an intermodal terminal would be built at 26th street and the AVR would possibly interchange with an LRT line coming up from downtown (don’t ask me how this would happen…)

The nearby property owners will become important in this instance.  A light rail vehicle can’t just hang a left at an intersection and the Strip is filled with dense development..  To get an idea of what it takes to turn a light rail vehicle, see the below map.

  Land will have to be acquired and buildings potentially demolished.  This is sure to meet with resistance from local business/property owners.  This will add to the already expensive costs of terminal facility construction in an urban environment.

Right of Way Construction:

One advantage that AVR has is that of an existing ROW.  (ahh the joys of existing infrastructure).  They already own the property and the tracks.  All they have to do is upgrade it.  They will have to add stations, passing sidings, signaling, and probably upgrade the road crossing protection over what they currently have.  While still expensive, the hard part (ROW acquisition) is already taken care of. 

That is until…

you get to 26th St
As discussed before, the AVR may elect to continue using their right of way and easement to reach 16th St.  If this is the case, while not ideal for operations it is ideal from a cost standpoint. 

The other option would be to operate at grade on 26th St. across Liberty where it would run on (or alongside) the Busway to the Penn Center Station and onto Steel Plaza.  This option could end up being very costly, and may not be physically feasible at all. 

As I alluded to earlier, a train doesn’t turn on a dime.  The line would have to curve to meet 26th St, and again, would probably have to cross a privately owned parking lot.  The AVR would then need permission to dig up the entirety of 26th Street to lay rail.  This would involve closing off Liberty Ave and Penn Ave to dig up the pavement and lay rails. 

I don’t know the timeframe for how long these roads would have to be disrupted for or the cost to install rails and update the traffic control equipment (both for auto traffic and trains). 

The going gets tougher once across Liberty Ave.  There is currently a bridge across the NS Pittsburgh Line that buses use to access the Busway.  There is a grade after Liberty to get over this bridge.  If trains are to use this they must make sure the grade is not too steep to operate.  They also have to ensure that the bridge is rated.  Remember, Light Rail is a relative term (River LINE style cars are approx 20 tons) and they are crossing a highway style bridge.  Assuming those requirements are met the ramp will have to be dug up and tracks laid.

The next challenge is the Busway itself.  After having to emplace a hard right hand curve at the Busway end of the bridge, the line will have to deal with the Busway itself.  This is not privately owned and is owned by the Port Authority.  They must agree to allow tracks to be put into place on their route.  (There is also no indication whether PAT will or won’t be responsible for operating this AVR service).  Again, IF PAT agrees to this request, the Busway will have to be torn up and tracks laid.   As the route would near the Penn Center Station, there is more room and the two routes could operate parallel to each other. 

An additional problem would face this proposal south of the Penn Center Station.  Soon after the station, the T ROW into Steel Plaza goes underground and stays that way for the 1000 or so feet to Steel Plaza.  This would mean that diesel propulsion may not be practical.  At the very least cars would not be allowed to idle in Steel Plaza, and may not be able to be operated underground at all without an electrical back up or third rail system.  Although this would be a short distance requirement, it still would mean additional infrastructure and vehicle costs.  Also, tracks would have to be re-laid because of gauge difference. 

A final construction issue is future T service to the East.  I know it’s a pipe dream, but there has always been talk of making the East Busway into a T line.  Right now that possibility will always be there.  If you built a different gauge line in from the East, you are removing that possibility. 

It’s clear there are some challenges.  I like the idea of the line going all the way to Steel Plaza.  This line is unlikely to ever be able to link in with a like mode of transportation.  Giving people ready access to the T and East Busway to get elsewhere in the city is critical if this service is going to succeed.  It’ seems as though construction is feasible.  The question right now is; is it practical?  


Cullen said...

This project is great. Except for the fact that our existing public transit network is about to be cut by 35%. Saving the existing network needs to be Pittsburgh focus NOW. Growth can come later.

East Busway Blogger said...

I don't know about great. Does it have potential? Yes, but I'm not sold on it yet.

Because the AVR project is semi-private, it could in theory, begin construction while all this PAT mess is still unresolved.

Right on with your sentiment about saving our current network.

Nick said...

Personally, I think the intermodal station sounds like a better idea than trying to run the AVR train all the way to Steel Plaza. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see something like that accomplished, but you said it yourself about the issues posed with it being underground and using a different track gauge.

You could rectify the situation by A) Run the AVR to only 16th St. and develop some sort of transit stop with easy and frequent transfers, or B) have the AVR run over to the East Busway, but stop around Penn Station and simply use one T LRT vehichle as a "shuttle" between the existing station there and Steel Plaza.

Whatever the outcome, I agree with you in that planners should be concerned with longer-term planning that includes east-bound T service. However, I too worry that the funding crisis is a more pressing issue at the moment than talk of the AVR and Forbes-Fifth BRT service. I'll still be going to that forum on Sept. 20 regardless. ;)