Gridlock greets drivers on Pirates' Opening Day on North Shore
Pittsburgh officials acknowledged on Monday that the department could have scheduled police officers earlier around PNC Park to avoid traffic backups and a struggle between Pirates fans and morning commuters to park in North Shore lots.
A police lieutenant who schedules off-duty officers said their start time comes down to cost to the city and baseball team. Public Safety Director Michael Huss and Acting Assistant Chief of Administration Thomas Stangrecki said they would review the situation.
“It's frustrating when you wait all year for this day and you spend most of the time in your vehicle,” said Jim Salsgiver, 40, of Oil City.
About 20 off-duty officers were scheduled to begin work at 10:30 a.m. to handle heavy traffic, Stangrecki said, but parking lots opened an hour earlier to revelers eager to tailgate. The jam began by 9 a.m. for the 1:35 p.m. game.
Fourteen on-duty officers came to the West End station for Opening Day assignments at 11:15 a.m., said Cmdr. Scott Schubert, who oversees the traffic division.
Asked why off-duty officers didn't start when the lots opened, Stangrecki said: “I don't have an answer for it. Realistically, I guess they could've been there earlier.”
Huss acknowledged problems last year when sellout games fell on weekdays but said he wasn't made aware of Opening Day complaints.
“We're going to have to take a look to see what we can do better,” Huss said. “The biggest part of the problem is the parking. People come down and expect to be able to park like they normally do and find they can't.”
Lt. Thomas Atkins, who schedules the off-duty officers, arrived at the ballpark about 10:30 a.m. He said things went smoothly.
“This was the best opening day I've worked in the last 12 years,” Atkins said. “By 1:30 p.m., we had everything off the street and people were getting into the ball game.”
Atkins said the start time for officers comes down to cost: at least $42 an hour for each officer, plus a $3.85 hourly administrative fee the city charges.
“We have limited resources, and it would be nice to have an officer at every corner, but the city and the sports franchise don't have that kind of money,” Atkins said.
Thousands of fans in cars swarmed the area during the morning commute, causing bottlenecks that backed up onto the freeways. Frustrated drivers said they saw few police officers directing traffic.
“We were trying to get off the ramp (from Interstate 279) for an hour,” said fan Dave Onderisin, 59, who left home in North Versailles at 8 a.m., stopped at the Triangle Bar in Swissvale for subs, then fought his way through traffic to a lot under the highway. “I thought with the colder weather that everyone would be coming out later.”
Allison Schnur, 26, of Butler said it took two hours to get from Butler to a parking spot.
“I definitely think (traffic cops) should have been out here earlier,” Schnur said. “We left Butler at 8 and didn't get parked until 10.”
Some off-duty officers took the day off to work the detail.
Alco Parking hired about seven officers to work security at its lots. Some started as early as 8 a.m., said Ralph Reetz, Alco general manager.
“This year was Easter Monday, so there were probably more kids out of school and more families coming in,” said Merrill Stabile, president of Alco. “As long as you're going to have a major event on the North Shore competing with the average daily commuter, there's not a perfect solution to this.”
Some motorists said they bent traffic laws to navigate the gridlock.
“We only waited about 15 minutes to get in, after coming from Squirrel Hill, though we hung an illegal U-turn to get in here. Traffic was brutal,” said Nick Hilton, 33, of Green Tree.
Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed to this report. Margaret Harding and Matthew Santoni are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Harding at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Santoni at 412-380-5625 or email@example.com.