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Free T fare zone between North Shore, Downtown called key for city

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 11:09 p.m.
Smart-card vending machines at the North Side Port Authority T station. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald continues to receive income from Aquenef, his water treatment equipment and service company. He said he no longer manages the day-to-day operations.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said on Tuesday he wants to keep rides on the T between the North Shore and Downtown free to continue commercial and residential development without increasing traffic.

Subsidy agreements with four sponsors of the free fare zone of the North Shore Connector between Allegheny Station near Heinz Field and the First Avenue stop Downtown expire next year, so the county is courting new companies to subsidize the rides, Fitzgerald said.

“I think people like it. I think people use it. I think it has spurred some development on the North Shore,” Fitzgerald said during an interview with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

Port Authority of Allegheny County spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency does not track ridership on the North Shore Connector.

Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto discussed transit last week when they traveled to Denver to attend a conference with the city's leaders. Fitzgerald said plans to develop a Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown and Oakland are still in the works.

“We have to move people by transit,” Fitzgerald said. “The demand for transit is really very high with all of the new Pittsburghers coming in. The young people don't want to be in cars.”

The North Shore Connector, a 1.2-mile extension of the Port Authority of Allegheny County's T system built for $517 million, opened in March 2012. Three-year deals with the Steelers, Rivers Casino, the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and Alco Parking Corp. to subsidize the rides expire in the spring, Ritchie said. The four sponsors agreed to pay a combined $360,000 to ensure free rides in the first year of operation and $5,000 more apiece in each of the following two years.

Fitzgerald did not know how much would be needed to continue the free fares but expected the cost to increase. Ritchie said it was premature to discuss specific figures.

Alco President Merrill Stabile said he intends to continue his sponsorship and is prepared to pay more. He would not disclose how much he would be willing to pay but said he has contacted Port Authority about extending his agreement. The North Shore Connector and its free fare zone have proven their value, Stabile said.

“It's very important to the larger pictures of things Downtown and on the North Shore,” Stabile said. “It's adding value to the real estate on both sides of the river, not just parking.”

The Steelers plan to have further conversations with Fitzgerald and Port Authority about the organization's sponsorship of the North Shore Connector, said Burt Lauten, a Steelers spokesman. Rivers Casino General Manager Craig Clark said the casino has been proud to support the free fare zone but has not discussed extending it.

The Stadium Authority did not return calls for comment.

Fitzgerald said the county has talked to new companies for potential sponsorship, but neither he nor Ritchie would disclose which ones.

Aaron Aupperlee and Bobby Kerlik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Aupperlee at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com. Reach Kerlik at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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