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Some 100,000 used connector to ride free to and from PNC Park

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 11:52 p.m.
Riders board the inbound train at the North Side T station Friday October 5, 2012. Pabst Blue Ribbon is spending $25,000 to place ads at Port Authority’s station for the next six weeks. Port Authority amended its advertising policy in April to allow ads pitching alcohol. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pirates fans John and Sharon Lawrence also are big fans of the North Shore Connector: It saves them money and the hassle of traffic when they go to PNC Park.

The North Side couple is among about 100,000 fans who used the connector to ride free to and from PNC Park during the $517 million light-rail extension's rookie season, according to a Pirates estimate.

“We love the service. It saves us money on parking, and we hate driving around the ballpark after games,” said John Lawrence, 54, during the Pirates' final homestand of the season this week.

Pirates officials laud the service that began March 25, saying trains ran smoothly after a few early hiccups and reduced traffic congestion on game days.

“From our perspective, it went extremely well in its first full season of service,” said Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki.

Major North Shore entities such as the Steelers, Rivers Casino, Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and Alco Parking Corp. help subsidize the connector's rides, though the Pirates haven't. Some say it's time for them to step up.

“They are certainly major beneficiaries of the subway service,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “We think everyone who is directly benefitting from the service should pitch in.”

Business subsidies totaling $360,000 this year allowed Port Authority to make rides on the connector between the North Shore and Downtown free this year. That will continue at least two more years.

As many as 100,000 fans used the train to attend the Pirates' 81 home games this season, Warecki estimated. The North Side Station is just a short walk from the rotunda gate behind home plate at PNC Park.

The team reported paid attendance of 2.1 million this season, second-highest in franchise history. Warecki said the increase in attendance, up 8 percent over last year, was because of the team's performance, not the train.

“Our benefit is not financial,” Warecki said. “It's a convenience for our fans.”

But the subway is more than just convenience for the Lawrences. They attend at least 20 games a season and can save more than $160 in parking fees by taking the train from Allegheny Station near Heinz Field.

Pirates fan Paul McGrath, 54, of Mt. Lebanon, who uses the connector, agreed the team should contribute financially. “They're getting the rewards of the system. It seems only fair,” he said.

But not everyone feels that way.

“It wasn't part of the original deal (to build the connector), so why should they?” said fan Kevin Scanlon, 60, of Mt. Washington.

The connector, a 1.2-mile light-rail extension under the Allegheny River, was built in part because of lobbying by the Pirates. In 1999, then-Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy, Steelers President Art Rooney II and former Mayor Tom Murphy urged a Highmark executive to help them lobby for federal funding, saying the connector would “maximize the economic benefits derived from ... development on the North Shore.”

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the transit agency gave the Pirates and Steelers “first crack” on naming-rights deals for the stations closest to their respective stadiums. Port Authority never closed a naming-rights deal, but out of those talks came the agreements from North Shore businesses to provide the subsidies.

Warecki said the Pirates “remain open to finding ways to enhance the partnership” with Port Authority, noting the team already heavily promotes the train service. A minute-long spot that airs before games shows the Pirate Parrot jumping on the train because he's stuck Downtown and has to get to the stadium quickly.

“They're missing a huge opportunity,” said Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey. “I think pitching in for something that not only benefits them but the larger community would be good for their brand image.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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