We are revisiting excerpts from an article published in the Post-Gazette Tuesday, December 15, 2009 By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
A slow-chugging plan for commuter rail service to the Allegheny Valley may be further sidetracked by a land dispute.
The Buncher Co., a Pittsburgh real estate developer, is contesting Allegheny Valley Railroad’s claim of an easement allowing it to operate along a 1,500-foot corridor between 16th and 21st streets in the Strip District.
The commuter line, which has been studied and talked about for more than a decade, would run from Arnold and New Kensington to the Strip or to Penn Station, Downtown. It is seen as a possible alternative to traffic-choked Route 28, especially during upcoming major reconstruction projects.
Without the disputed easement, which involves Buncher-owned property that is currently used as parking lots, the railroad could go no farther than 21st Street.
The case was heard Jan. 26th before the Surface Transportation Board in Washington, D.C.
(As of May17th no ruling has been made on this issue.)
Allegheny Valley Railroad, which wants to develop the commuter service, contends that when Conrail sold the property to Buncher in 1983, it reserved the right to operate rail service there.
In 1995, Conrail deeded the Valley Industrial Track — from 16th Street in the Strip to New Kensington — to Allegheny Valley Railroad, AVR said.
Although the tracks from 16th to 21st streets were removed or covered over in the 1980s, AVR contends it held the easement to operate rail service in the corridor, and that Buncher was barred from developing the strip of land once occupied by the tracks.
When AVR’s chief executive officer, Russell Peterson, and a consultant met with Buncher’s president, Tom Balestrieri, in September 2008 to invite the company into a public-private partnership to build a transit-oriented development between 16th and 21st streets, Mr. Balestrieri told them the easement didn’t exist, Mr. Peterson said in a filing to the transportation board.
The railroad in April asked the board to declare the easement valid.
Richard R. Wilson, attorney for the railroad, said it might take three to four months for the board to rule after the January hearing. Buncher, however, is contesting the board’s jurisdiction in the case, he said.
Regardless of the outcome, appeals are likely, Mr. Wilson said. “This could go on for some time.”
There have been no talks on a possible settlement, he said.
AVR claims to hold a deed from 1995, conveying the easement to them, while Buncher denies that any easement exists.
According to Russell Peterson, CEO of AVR, if the STB rules in favor of Buncher, then the rail service will stop short of downtown, at 21st Street. This would put the success and feasibility of the commuter service in jeopardy. If the board rules in favor of AVR, Peterson believes Buncher will likely appeal to a higher court, entering a process that could take years.
Peterson does not, however, think this decision is a make-or-break situation for commuter rail. “It might limit our options,” he says, “but it does not close the door.”
“Even if Buncher prevails in appeals,” Peterson says, “It doesn’t mean there are not other ways to resolve the issue.”
If AVR does eventually prevail in the hearing, the commuter service would still be many years away from breaking ground. According to Peterson, U.S. Representative Jason Altmire (a strong supporter of the service) has environmental impact study funding already in place. A study would be the next step in the process.
Peterson says AVR would likely sell their tracks to a public\private entity which would then develop the corridor and commuter stations. Peterson believes there would be at least half a billion dollars worth of development.
View AVR’s Pittsburgh Commuter Rail Position Here!
Note: Download the complete video record of the actual arguments presented by both parties at the hearing right here.
Mr. Balestrieri could not be reached for comment.
Here is one of the Buncher Comapany’s Divisions
Is it possible that this operation may have something to do with this deadlock? Does The Buncher Company and its CEO Mr. Ballestrieri have a hidden agenda? We don’t have an answer to that question. What we do have is some information on one of Buncher’s business relationships.
It appears that The Buncher Company and and Allegheny County have a strong business relationship. Here are two that we know of:
The following is part of a Q&A with Dan Onorato Chief executive, Allegheny County and The Pittsburgh Business Times – Compiled by Mara Mrvos on Friday, October 29, 2004.
“Q:Have companies from outside the Pittsburgh region asked about development opportunities at the airport? If so, which ones? And who is working to get the word out about development options here?
A: I work closely with the county’s Department of Economic Development and Allegheny County Airport Authority to proactively promote airport development to local, national and international firms. Recently, development in this area has gained significant momentum. In August, The Buncher Co., a Pittsburgh-based firm, entered into a letter of intent with the Airport Authority to construct, lease and manage a 400,000-square-foot building in two phases at the new Clinton Industrial Park, located on county-owned property at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Also, Bayer Corp. officials recently announced that Lanxess, its new subsidiary, will maintain its U.S. headquarters at RIDC West in Findlay Township. Lanxess plans to employ more than 400 people at its new facility, including employees who are being relocated from Akron, Ohio.”
But wait, there is more:
New County Lab Construction Update -
On May 23, 2006, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato provided an update on construction of the County’s new laboratories. Structural repairs are underway at a 78,000 square-foot building in the Strip District to serve as the new headquarters for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner. The Buncher Company facility, known as Penn-Liberty Plaza II, will house the Medical Examiner’s crime lab, which provides forensic, analytical and medical testing services to law enforcement agencies throughout the County, as well as the County morgue After numerous meetings with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Allegheny County Health Department, a decision was made to move forward with building the new public health lab, which includes a Biosafety Level 3 facility, at a separate 10,000 squarefoot building in Lawrenceville, at the Clack Center Complex, due to time and cost issues. The County Public Works Department has issued re-bid requests for construction of the facility. Principal Architect Sam Taylor, project manager, has construction documents to be completed in mid-November. The new lab will replace the Health Department’s current facility located at 3441 Forbes Avenue in Oakland.
What does all of this mean? Probably not much other than the Allegheny Valley Railroad most likely can forget about support from Allegheny County to move this project forward. We thought you might like to have access to the above information.
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire secured $500,000 for a feasibility study of commuter rail in 2007. The study, completed this year, determined that the plan was feasible but would need millions in operating subsidies.
“The development of the Allegheny Valley commuter rail is critically important to our region’s future. I am hopeful that this current dispute will be resolved in a timely fashion. I remain committed to working to secure the federal funding needed to move this project forward and bring Western Pennsylvania’s infrastructure in line with its transportation needs,” he said yesterday.
Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, is seeking $6 million in a new federal surface transportation bill to complete planning and design of the service.Email Congressman Altmire here