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Last year's gridlock looms large over Pirates' opener

| Sunday, March 30, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Fans arriving for Opening Day on Monday will be getting an earlier start to tailgating around PNC Park, and so will police hoping to avoid last year's gridlock — but not by much.

Police spokeswoman Sonya Toler said officers assigned to ease congestion and operate signals at the busiest intersections will start arriving at their posts at 10:30 a.m., at least 45 minutes earlier than last year.

But this year's first pitch is about a half-hour earlier, about 1 p.m. Parking lots and garages open to tailgaters at 9 a.m., and the ballpark gates open at 11. Officials urge fans to have patience, use mass transit or park farther away from the ball field.

“If people can curtail their excitement with a little bit of patience, we'll be able to help them get where they need to go,” Toler said.

The Pirates' remarkable turnaround season got off to an agonizingly slow start. Hours before the team lost the home opener to the Chicago Cubs, thousands of motorists — commuters and fans — found themselves trapped in miles-long traffic jams and scrambling for limited parking.

“I remember sitting on the ramp (from Interstate 279) for so darn long and just watching everyone set up their grills. That wasn't any fun,” said Dave Onderisin, 60, of North Versailles.

The traffic details will include six on-duty officers and two motorcycle cops, Toler said. After the game, 10 on-duty officers and two motorcycle cops will work. Twenty off-duty officers will work around the ballpark through the day, Toler said.

Opening Day, typically a weekday afternoon sellout, challenges a transportation system strained by workday commuters, officials say.

More than a dozen on-duty officers scheduled for game details a year ago didn't report to the West End station for duty until 11:15 a.m. — almost two hours after lots and garages opened to tailgaters at 9:30 a.m. About 20 off-duty officers began at about 10:30.

Onderisin, the fan from North Versailles, doesn't plan to change his routine, which consists of buying jumbo-sized hoagies from Triangle Bar in Swissvale while en route to the game. He likes to arrive by 9:30 a.m.

Complicating matters, fans and commuters will have hundreds of fewer parking spots available compared with last year.

Two buildings being built and other construction along North Shore Drive ate up more than 500 spaces, the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority said.

“It's going to be a challenge,” said Ralph Reetz, general manager of Alco Parking Corp., which owns or manages much of the North Shore parking.

Toler said an extra 200 spaces will be available in a parking lot near the former Heinz plant on River Avenue to offset those lost to construction, while garages Downtown, like those near Market Square, have been “underutilized” in the past. The Pirates have put up signs to direct fans to available parking, she said.

Reetz said lots and garages will accept parking-pass-holders before fans. Cash-paying commuters will have to look elsewhere. He advised people to use public transit when possible.

“That's a funny thing for a parking agency to be recommending, isn't it?” Reetz said.

Port Authority of Allegheny County spokesman Jim Ritchie said the transit agency plans to run beefed-up T light-rail service to and from the North Shore, as it has for Bucs openers since the $517 million North Shore Connector opened in March 2012. The agency reported minor complications in the first year but none last year.

Two-car trains designed to transport 340 passengers will run at a clip of about 10 per hour, from about 10 a.m. until crowds dissipate after the game. In addition to its regular weekday service, Port Authority will operate two double trains continuously between Allegheny Station near Heinz Field and Station Square, Ritchie said.

“We fully expect our system to be crowded and busy, with a lot of people in stations and in vehicles. But we're able to accommodate the Pirates crowds, even sellouts, without much difficulty,” Ritchie said.

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

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