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Ardmore Transit Center faces new hurdle

Downtown Ardmore's long-awaited makeover has hit more snags. They involve the need for more time - and perhaps more money.

Downtown Ardmore's long-awaited makeover has hit more snags.

They involve the need for more time - and perhaps more money.

The developer of the project that is the linchpin of the makeover, the $100 million Ardmore Transit Center, is asking local officials for a one-year extension to iron out what he describes as a design issue involving Amtrak's plans.

Carl Dranoff, of Dranoff Properties in Philadelphia, wants to push back his first project deadline from June 30, and likely delay groundbreaking until late 2013.

At the same time, one of the public agencies backing the project, SEPTA, says it can't pony up its $10 million piece of the financing just yet.

SEPTA general manager Joseph M. Casey said Friday that the agency's cash infusions for 22 capital projects might have to wait indefinitely. The Ardmore project's $10 million is on that list. Casey blamed Washington - that is, federal officials' nixing of the proposal to put tolls on I-80.

Despite the setbacks, Dranoff and Lower Merion officials predicted late last week that the oft-delayed project would eventually clear its fiscal and design hurdles.

Douglas S. Cleland, the township's manager, said Lower Merion commissioners will take up Dranoff's request on June 16. They will do so at a meeting of a panel whose name fairly conveys the Ardmore project's goal: the economic revitalization committee.

Cleland said he didn't expect the delay to kill the deal. "Carl Dranoff continues to express his confidence that he can and will complete this project," Cleland wrote in an e-mail.

Word of the likely delay drew the equivalent of a weary sigh from a politician who was a key force in launching the Ardmore project by helping to secure a federal grant for the effort - in 2004.

"The progress on this project has been frustrating, and I am becoming increasingly concerned that continuing delays will ultimately threaten the federal funds I have already worked to obtain," U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) said in a statement Friday night. "Rather than asking for more delays, the residents and taxpayers deserve a redoubling of efforts by all parties - Amtrak, SEPTA, the township, and the developer - to get this project done as expeditiously as possible."

Dranoff, who took over after the original developer backed out two years ago, said that under a 2009 agreement with Lower Merion, he was to have signed a deal with Amtrak to acquire Ardmore's train station and an adjacent parking lot by June 30. The two properties form the footprint for the publicly funded part of Dranoff's project - which includes a new train station, raised and extended commuter platforms, and a 501-car garage.

The privately funded component includes a mini-Main Street, with stores and a five-story apartment building between the tracks and the rear of stores facing Lancaster Avenue. But in December, Dranoff said, during a design check with all parties, he learned of Amtrak's aim to upgrade its electrification system a decade from now. To do that, Amtrak would need to wedge its catenary towers - which carry overhead wires providing power for some trains - into the edges of the planned garage.

Dranoff said he hadn't known of the planned upgrade when designs were drawn. "It's very simple," he said Wednesday. "We have run into a snag that is very technical in nature, and has nothing to do with the viability of the project. We're arguing over a few feet and inches."

(Amtrak issued a statement saying that in July, it had alerted township engineers working with Dranoff "of the deficiencies in their plan." The statement also said Amtrak notified Dranoff's engineers Thursday "that we resolved electrical clearance issues relative to the proposed buildings [and] we are encouraged that the parties are working together to advance this project.")

Dranoff said the township, the developer, and Amtrak "came to loggerheads" over how to tweak the design to allow for the towers. He, too, said things were being ironed out. "They're trying to do that right now," Dranoff said. "Hopefully, we'll get this worked out in the summertime."

The developer estimated that the project was six months behind schedule. Under the extension, all project deadlines would be rolled back a year, including groundbreaking, which would occur by the end of 2013.

"I'm going to be forthright," Dranoff said. "These issues aren't attributable to us. We can't proceed on the private end of the project until the public end is in place."

Funding for the public portion of the project is a separate hurdle. Last year, Dranoff and township leaders said they were counting on $5.8 million from the Federal Transit Administration - the money Gerlach helped secure - plus $6 million in state funding for the garage, $10 million from SEPTA, and $250,000 from Montgomery County.

In testimony Friday at St. Joseph's University, SEPTA's Casey told a joint hearing of the state House transportation and policy committees that insufficient funding was forcing the agency to cut $110 million from its capital budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation's recent rejection of the application to toll Interstate 80 will have an immediate and significant impact on SEPTA's capital investment program," Casey testified.

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said he could not predict when money for the Ardmore project might be restored.

The public part of the Ardmore project's funding faces a $20 million to $30 million gap, all parties agreed. Where the money will come from isn't clear - but the project never was 100 percent funded, Township Commissioner V. Scott Zelov said.

"There are funding uncertainties," he said, "but there have been funding uncertainties from the beginning." Zelov said he still had "confidence in Dranoff Properties based on their track record and their commitment to the project."

Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) has included a request for $10 million in a federal transportation bill, Dranoff and Zelov said. But Zelov cautioned against regarding that as a surefire replacement for SEPTA's piece.

Meanwhile, all parties are beating the bushes for other funding sources. "This is routine," Dranoff said. "We remain as committed as ever."

Christine Vilardo, who heads a business-district group called the Ardmore Initiative, said she regarded the extension as just another blip on the project's horizon.

If the project takes longer, "it's frustrating, but so be it, Vilardo said. "We believe everybody means what they say. We remain optimistic."