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Businesses haven't pounced on Port Authority's T sponsorship deals

Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Commuters board the Downtown-bound T train at the North Side Station.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Though government leaders and transit riders want to extend free rides on Port Authority's T light-rail system from the North Shore and Downtown to Station Square, the idea has hit a significant snag.

Business owners aren't buying into it.

“We're talking to a lot of people about sponsorships that could help make that happen,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

But reaching a deal to help subsidize free service to the retail complex, which draws 3 million people annually to the Monongahela River's southern shore, has proved difficult and the cost worries at least one landmark business.

“It was pretty steep,” Sheraton Station Square General Manager Tom Hardy said of an offer made on behalf of Port Authority and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to secure money needed to cover free fares.

Hardy said consultants approached a group including the Sheraton, Station Square owners Forest City Enterprises and the Grand Concourse and Hard Rock Cafe restaurants before the $517 million North Shore Connector opened in March 2012.

The consultants — hired by Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Port Authority for $60,000 — asked the group for $160,000 a year to subsidize free fares and $75,000 a year for exclusive naming rights to the Station Square T station along West Carson Street, Hardy said.

The group rejected the pitch and representatives told the Tribune-Review that talks went no further since the initial offer.

“It's probably not something we'd act on in the near future. We continue to be open to the idea, but just not at that level,” Forest City spokesman Jeff Linton said.

Linton said the company is pursuing another deal: In December, it hired real estate firm CBRE Inc. to market the retail complex to potential buyers. Linton declined to provide more details.

Pittsburgh Downtown Parternship spokeswoman Leigh White said the group no longer is directly involved in trying to broker free-fare deals but supports them.

“We hoped these types of conversations were still occurring,” White said.

Fitzgerald said Station Square's potential sale wouldn't derail a free-fare deal.

“They are just one of many companies that might or might not be interested,” Fitzgerald said of Forest City, declining to identify companies. He said officials are dangling sponsorship opportunities at all seven T stations in the North Shore/Downtown/Station Square loop.

Money derived from a deal at any of the stations could be used to extend free fares to Station Square, he said.

Fitzgerald thinks the success of the North Shore Connector could help.

During construction, the project to extend the T under the Allegheny River from Downtown to the North Shore was widely unpopular — described by Gov. Tom Corbett as a “tunnel to nowhere” and panned by former Gov. Ed Rendell as a “tragic mistake.” It was conceived 16 years earlier as a $240 million project.

In two separate deals announced before the connector's opening, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rivers Casino, Alco Parking Corp. and Pittsburgh Stadium Authority agreed to pay a combined $360,000 to ensure free rides in the first year of operation and more in the following two years.

Free fares helped attract about 1 million riders to the T last year, officials said. More than 7.7 million riders used the system, up almost 15 percent from the year before, American Public Transportation Association data show.

“No one wanted to be associated with the project before it opened but that has totally flipped,” Fitzgerald said, noting officials couldn't entice any groups to sign the potentially more lucrative deals for naming rights to stations before the connector opened.

“Ridership is way up, popularity is up, people love it. We might have undersold it a little bit (before the T opened) because we just wanted to get people using it. Now I think the corporate community sees the value in sponsorship opportunities,” Fitzgerald said.

Terry Wirginis worries free T rides to Station Square could hurt his business, the Gateway Clipper, which offers river shuttles to and from Steelers and Pirates games on the North Shore and sightseeing and entertainment cruises. The game shuttles cost $10 round-trip.

“My issue is with a publicly-funded transportation system being subsidized to provide free transportation to events at both stadiums that competes directly with my business,” said Wirginis, president of Gateway Clipper.

Wirginis estimates 10 percent of Steelers fans going to Heinz Field use Clipper shuttles. He said the Clipper lost “hundreds” of gameday fans since the North Shore Connector opened. “It would be worse if they extended free fares to Station Square,” Wirginis said.

Ben Byrum, 42, of Wheeling said he'd continue to use the Clipper.

“We wouldn't trade this experience,” Byrum said last week as he rode the Clipper's Countess shuttle to PNC Park for a Pirates game with wife Stacy, 37, and son Hunter, 8.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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