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City gives maglev developers 18 months to get project on track

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Developers of a proposed Downtown magnetic levitation train cleared their latest hurdle yesterday when Pittsburgh City Council authorized the drafting of a conditional 18-month lease for a parking garage adjacent to the Civic Arena.

The bill passed 7-2, with Alan Hertzberg and Sala Udin voting no. It now goes to Mayor Murphy, who will likely let it pass despite his reservations about the project.

The measure gives Western Pennsylvania Maglev Development Corp. 18 months to arrange financing and secure various governmental approvals for the $147 million project, which includes a 5,000-car parking garage and a half-mile elevated maglev track from the garage to the Steel Plaza transit station on Grant Street.

If the project goes forward, developers would pay $150,000 per year for a 40-year lease for the garage site. The lease would cover half of a nine-acre parcel bounded by Bedford Avenue, Centre Avenue, Crawford Street and Mario Lemieux Place.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority board and Allegheny County commissioners previously approved drafting the lease.

David O'Loughlin, president of the maglev corporation, said the next step for his group will be asking City Council to allow some parking taxes generated by the garage to be used to pay off the project's debt.

O'Loughlin said the site currently generates $298,000 in parking taxes. His group would like to use any additional taxes to help pay debt service on the project's bonds.

Studies done for the maglev group show the garage could generate an extra $1 million in parking taxes, he said.

He said the site plan for the project needs approvals from the city Planning Commission, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Sports and Exhibition Authority -- formerly the Public Auditorium Authority.

Council approved the provisional lease despite vociferous opposition from Udin, who represents the Hill District and Downtown. He has said the project would disrupt residential communities near the arena, and complained that the maglev technology is unsafe and unproven.

"The only thing levitating in this debate is the insults that have been hurled at Hill District residents in this brazen disregard for their concerns," Udin said.

Jim Ferlo, a maglev supporter, said criticisms of the project grew out of "petty politics, small-mindedness and provincialism," and said approval of the lease was necessary to "allow the project to get out of the dugout and not even to first base."

Mayoral spokesman Craig Kwiecinski said Murphy is withholding his support until developers meet conditions he laid down years ago: The project must have community support; the developers must have sufficient financing to dismantle the maglev system should it fail and make payments to the city in lieu of property taxes; and they must show the project won't compete with other transportation improvements, such as a Light Rail Transit extension to the North Shore.

"We're willing to allow [developers] to take this step forward," Kwiecinski said of the lease. "But this is one step in a very long process."

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