Allegheny County reaches an agreement on land eyed for Brilliant Line trail project

STEVE BOHNEL/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Plans for a new biking and pedestrian trail connecting Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood to the Allegheny RiverTrail Park in Aspinwall took a big step forward this week.

Allegheny County officials announced Thursday that the county, Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, and Allegheny RiverTrail Park have reached an agreement to begin the process of converting an old rail line into a roughly four-mile trail, stretching along the Brilliant Branch Railroad Bridge into Pittsburgh and down into Homewood. The line is owned by Allegheny County Railroad Company, and freight used to run across the bridge and along the line that are being considered for the trail.

That company has agreed to sell the rail line to the county for the trail, given that future regulatory hurdles are cleared. The Brilliant Line trail project will cost the county about $4.7 million to purchase the land, although another $10 million is needed to renovate the rail line into a safe pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, according to prior estimates. 

County officials have said they would use the Trail Development Fund — consisting of federal American Rescue Plan money, dollars approved by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — to pay for the project. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald established that fund last year.

The project’s approval would be subject to a regulatory review process known as “railbanking.” Bill Strome, chair for the board of the Allegheny RiverTrail Park, said that process allows federal and state agencies to be notified of the county’s intention to buy the stretch of rail line. Allegheny County Railroad Company then files a “Notice of Exempt Abandonment” with the Federal Surface Transportation Board, which would trigger the final steps before the purchase can be finalized, county officials said. 

The Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County will own the rail line once all the regulatory hurdles are cleared, officials said.

Mr. Strome said he helps that process could be finalized by the end of this year. The rail hasn’t been used for freight business for years, and the grade of the rail is a little steeper than what most rail companies now prefer, he said.

The potential of the trail is significant, Mr. Strome said. It would connect people from Aspinwall to all neighborhoods in the city — and given connections to nearby trails, connect all the way to Downtown, he said. 

“Think about going from Hamilton [Avenue] all the way into Downtown without having to enter a vehicle,” Mr. Strome said.

T. Rashad Byrdsong, chairman of the Homewood Community Development Collaborative, the city’s registered community organization for Homewood, said he was aware of the project, but wanted to find out more information from the county before commenting on its potential impact.

In a prepared statement, Aspinwall Borough Manager Melissa O’Malley congratulated the county and Allegheny RiverTrail Park Board for reaching its agreement to begin acquiring the Brilliant Line. 

“Their hard work and dedication in finalizing this initiative is commendable,” Ms. O’Malley wrote. “We are excited to be a part of this great regional community asset.”

Mr. Strome said he would love to see the trail open to bikers and pedestrians by 2025 or 2026, but knows that Thursday’s announcement is just the first step of many. It’s taken many years to get to this point — he credited Susan Crookston, founder of the Allegheny RiverTrail Park, who started conversations about the project more than a decade ago. 

If it were executed, the Brilliant Line Trail could create enough bike and pedestrian traffic to create commercial and retail development opportunities, especially along the river, he said. 

“It’s been a long process, but at the end of the day, very worth it,” Mr. Strome said. 

First Published August 17, 2023, 3:45pm


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