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Tight North Shore parking clue to connector's popularity

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Saturday, April 21, 2012, 11:51 a.m.

Port Authority of Allegheny County won't say how many people have used the $517 million North Shore Connector since the light-rail extension opened a month ago, but signs around the North Shore show ridership is robust.

"Now I have to go up to at least the eighth floor to find a parking spot in the mornings. I used to get one by the fifth," said Oakmont commuter Marty Kennedy, 50, who works at ROOT Sports and parks in the 10-story West General Robinson Street Garage above the new North Side Station.

The Pittsburgh Stadium Authority's 1,321-space garage, built for $28.9 million, has been a target of criticism since it opened in 2006 because of low occupancy. The authority said in December that debt payments exceeded parking revenue since the garage opened, with the average occupancy rate about 68 percent.

Today average weekday occupancy is about 95 percent, said Alco Parking President Merrill Stabile, who manages the garage. Signs reading, "Garage full, leases only," have been placed outside garage entrances at least three times a week since the connector's March 25 opening, he said.

A check of the lot one afternoon this week showed just 33 spaces available. No special events were in progress on the North Shore to inflate occupancy.

"We're very pleased with how well it's been going," Stabile said.

"These are people who work Downtown in the (Golden) Triangle," he said, noting there are no new ventures in the North Side to account for the change.

In December, Alco and the Stadium Authority reached a three-year deal with the Port Authority to provide a $160,000 subsidy to make rides free between Downtown and the North Side Station in the connector's first year of operation, and $5,000 on top of the base payment in each of the subsequent two years.

The Steelers and Rivers Casino reached a similar deal in relation to Allegheny Station at North Shore Drive and Reedsdale Street, ensuring free T rides in all of the North Shore and Downtown.

The Stadium Authority also lowered all-day parking rates to $6 from $8, making them less than half of the average cost of parking Downtown, where all-day garage rates are about $14. All-day rates for surface lots Alco owns surrounding the West General Robinson garage also are $6.

Stabile said North Shore lots still have 700 to 800 available spaces on an average weekday, about the same as before the connector opened.

"I don't want to discourage people from coming over to the North Shore because they think there's no longer any room to park," he said.

About 70 to 80 commuters a day use the Carnegie Science Center's 250-space lot next to Allegheny Station, said center spokeswoman Susan Zimecki. All-day rates there are $6.

When asked how many commuters used the lot before the connector opened, Zimecki said, "Oh, like zero." Instead, the center used the lot for overflow parking.

Community College of Allegheny County students and employees use the connector to get to and from the North Side campus, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnston. She could not provide statistics but said, "Every time I go by (Allegheny Station), it seems like there are 25 students walking up the hill" toward the campus. She said she drives to work.

Port Authority won't release ridership statistics until May, after the connector has been in operation for a full calendar month, officials said. Employees have been counting heads at times in the two new North Shore stations and Downtown's new Gateway Station.

"We've seen a lot of use of the system. It's really been well-received, both in the morning and evening rush and midday," said connector project director Keith Wargo.

The Port Authority has worked to resolve minor problems that cropped up after service began. Spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency re-recorded audio messages that could barely be heard on station platforms when they were not cutting in and out, and it reprogrammed the system that delivers audio and electronic messages on trains that were out of sync.

The agency plans to put up additional signs that better explain where trains are headed.

"A lot of the issues are with new riders or people from out of town who aren't familiar with the system," Ritchie said, noting they might not know that Gateway Station is Downtown or that both Red and Blue Line trains go through Downtown.

He said the agency will post temporary signs where needed and permanent ones in coming months.

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