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Pittsburgh Council votes for public hearing on Maglev lease in September

Thursday, July 29, 1999

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

City Council voted yesterday to hold a public hearing in September on an 18-month lease agreement with developers of a slow-moving magnetic levitation system.

On Tuesday, council decided to hold off on approving the conditional lease after a large band of Hill District residents came to council chambers to decry the plan.

The Western Pennsylvania Magnetic Levitation Corp. wants to build a garage on the 5,000 car parking lot on the former Melody Tent site above the Civic Arena, and pay $150,000 a year for the lease of the land. In addition the developers plan to build a half-mile elevated maglev track between the garage and the Steel Plaza transit station on Grant Street.

If the lease were approved, the developers would have 18 months to come up with a financing plan and all the necessary governmental approvals to build the $147 million project.

After giving the lease preliminary approval last week, council flip-flopped Tuesday and instead decided to hold off a vote until a public hearing is held on the project. It won't be held until September at the earliest, since council leaves for a monthlong recess next week.

Council voted 6-2 to hold a hearing. Michael Diven and Dan Onorato voted "no" and Jim Ferlo was absent. Dan Cohen, Gene Ricciardi and Bob O'Connor all said they supported the maglev plans but wanted to hear more information about the project, such as how much federal funds it could receive.

Long-standing Hill District community leaders Thelma Lovett and Earl Hord, as well as some 15 to 20 other residents, came to council to publicly criticize the project. Most said the garage would increase air pollution and traffic, provide no jobs or other benefits to the Hill community and be dependent upon unproven technology.

"We do not want an untried, unproven system to be part of our back yard," said Hord, chairman of the Hill District Community Development Corp.

Councilman Sala Udin, who represents the community, was more forceful in his attacks. He said the entire maglev system was merely a "scheme" developers were using to build a giant parking garage, and had nothing to do with developing new technology.

"It is not mass transit, it is a method of transporting customers to their parking garage. This is a scheme and a sham," Udin said.

David O'Laughlin, the president of the maglev group, said he was anxious to get council's approval of the lease so he could go to the federal government to get further funds for the project. He brushed off Udin's comments, saying they disparaged the private and public institutions, including the Urban Redevelopment Authority, that had already approved the lease plan.

"It's ridiculous to make those kinds of comments. It disparages all of the companies and corporations involved in the project," he said.

Council unaimously approved several other bills during a meandering 3 1/2 hour session Tuesday. They included:

A bill requiring hotels, restaurants and bars that receive city subsidies or are located on city-owned land to allow their employees to unionize. In exchange, the unions would make a no-strike pledge that would last as long as the establishments received the subsidies.

Ricciardi, its sponsor, said the bill didn't require workers to be in unions but rather requires they're given the opportunity to be in them. Mayor Murphy is against the bill, which could throw a monkey wrench into the redevelopment of the Fifth and Forbes avenues retail corridor and other projects.

A plan to offer tax breaks to developers who convert industrial and commercial properties into residential ones, such as loft apartments. Loft owners will be charged the pre-renovation property tax for five years in order to encourage residential development, especially Downtown. Cohen, the bill's sponsor, must now lobby the commissioners and the city school board to make it effective.

An effort by the city Planning Department to install water taxi stands at docking areas around the three rivers. Most of the oversight of the water taxi companies will be handled by the U.S. Coast Guard, which licenses the boats and pilots.

Two contracting bills that Udin introduced Tuesday. One requires contractors receiving city money would be required to file monthly reports with the city controller that provide the names, addresses, municipalities, races, genders, trades and skill levels of all construction employees.

The second directs the city to offer increased technical assistance to minority- and women-owned construction businesses to train them to become prime construction contractors, rather than merely subcontractors.

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