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North Neighborhoods
PUC to review O'Hara crossing dispute

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

By Maria Carpico, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It is getting harder to find a place to cross the railroad tracks in O'Hara these days.

Norfolk Southern Railroad closed and removed the crossing on a private road leading from Old Freeport Road to the Allegheny riverfront Dec. 2, much to the dismay of residents, business owners and community leaders.

Businesses such as the Fox Chapel Yacht Club, ESSpa Kozmetika Skin Care, Fox Chapel Boat Sea Ray & Marina and an apartment complex, The Docks, relied on the crossing for access. The alternative entrance, Fairview Road, has a steeper grade and more obstructed view. The situation has businesses feeling the pinch and officials fearing the worst.

Jim Habay, O'Hara councilman and assistant chief at Parkview Volunteer Fire Company, is concerned that the response time to residents and businesses across the tracks could be severely affected -- and that having only one crossing is dangerous.

"If they cut off the crossing there is the potential for 1,000 people to be trapped. It's a nightmare for emergency services," Habay said.

Norfolk Southern disagrees. "We didn't cut off any access," spokesman Rudy Husband said. "There's another crossing a quarter of a mile away."

Scott Kerschbaumer and his wife, Eva Stupka, own and operates ESSpa Kozmetika Skin Care, a day spa in the yacht club complex. They learned of the closing from their receptionist, who called because she was unable to find another way into work.

Norfolk Southern gave no warning to residents, business owners or township officials of their plans to block off the crossing, Habay said.

Kerschbaumer said walk-in traffic has ceased completely since the crossing closed."Norfolk Southern doesn't do us any good, especially three weeks before Christmas. People may have heard about us and want to stop by but now they can't even get in," he said.

Initially, the crossing's elimination seemed arbitrary, but it is the latest incident in a tug of war between Norfolk Southern, the yacht club and O'Hara.

The yacht club was leasing the private crossing from Norfolk Southern when it sold a parcel of land to Continental Communities to build The Docks.

The Docks is a partially completed rental community adjacent to the yacht club. It has plans for 398 apartments; 80 are completed and leased and occupancy permits have been issued for 130 others.

Norfolk Southern contends the yacht club broke its lease for the crossing by letting the land be used for purposes other than those specified.

"The increase in vehicular traffic was 700 percent," Husband said of traffic studies analyzing the impact of 398 apartments. He said the railroad closed the crossing due to safety concerns.

Continental Communities, however, tells a different story. Mabon Lichtenfels, regional project manager, said for three years his company had been trying to pay to upgrade the crossing, complete with the appropriate signs and lights, but Norfolk Southern has never agreed.

Norfolk Southern filed a lawsuit against the yacht club and Continental over their agreement, but when it arrived in Commonwealth Courth, the issue was ruled jurisdictional and was sent to the state Public Utility Commission for review Norfolk Southern maintains that crossing is private and the PUC has no jurisdiction.

Richard R. Wilson, attorney for O'Hara, said the crossing became public when the township passed an ordinance Nov. 19 accepting it as a public street with the name Riverfront Drive.

An application was filed with the PUC stating that Riverfront Drive is a public street and that because it crosses the railroad's right of way, the crossing is also public.

As a result of the application, an on-site conference has been scheduled for tomorrow so PUC officials can see the scene.

Norfolk Southern was aware of the conference when it erected the jersey barriers and tore up the road, Lichtenfels said. "It was well planned, conscious effort to disrupt public safety."

The township filed an emergency petition with the PUC Dec. 4 outlining Norfolk Southern's actions. "They had been very reluctant to work with us on the crossing upgrade. Their closing of the crossing is the result," said Doug Ardnt, O'Hara manager.

Norfolk Southern handles the maintenance on all public and private crossings of its tracks. "We are not initiating upgrades because there is no operation benefit for us," Husband said.

Wilson said he believes the railroad company wants an upgrade, just not the one being offered.

"The township and developer agreed to pay for the grade lighting and gates, but Norfolk feels that's not adequate; they want a grade-separated crossing," Wilson said. "Grade-separated" means that the road and railroad are on different levels, with the road crossing via a bridge or underpass.

Norfolk Southern has "demanded that O'Hara agree to no further development from the tracks to the river until there is a grade-separated crossing," Wilson said.

The PUC will file a response to the petition that will be the next step in determining the fate of the crossing.

Maria Carpico can be reached at mcarpico@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.

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