T extension to debut amid questions about its acceptance
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Sunday, March 25, 2012, 2:42 p.m.
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland declares the beleagured transit agency will be a winner even if no one uses the $517 million North Shore Connector light-rail line that scoots under the Allegheny River. Service begins today.
"It's a massive engineering feat, and one of the most complex public works projects in Southwestern Pennsylvania history. If no one rides it, it's still an accomplishment. We did a hell of a job," Bland told the Tribune-Review.
Bland hopes ridership is robust on the 1.2-mile line that connects Downtown and the North Shore. But he said the authority cannot predict how many passengers will use the newest section of the 25-mile system, a fact that has generated considerable criticism.
Officials began planning 16 years ago for what would become one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Pittsburgh. Over the years, its price tag more than doubled, with federal taxpayers footing 80 percent of the tab and state and Allegheny County taxpayers paying the rest.
"We've done our part," Bland said. "We built it and we're going to operate it. Now it's up to the region to take advantage of it."
Who stands to gain -- or lose -- the most?
Art Rooney II, Steelers
Steelers President Art Rooney II grew up riding North Side streetcars, which stopped rolling in 1966.
"I would walk out the door, put a dime in the box and be Downtown within 10 minutes," said Rooney, 59.
Since then, Three Rivers Stadium came and went on the North Shore, where the opening of Heinz Field in 2001 helped spur $2 billion in development.
The city's sports teams -- particularly the Steelers -- played a key role in lobbying federal officials to fund the connector. In 1999, Rooney, then-Mayor Tom Murphy and then-Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy wrote to a Highmark Inc. official they hoped would help them lobby, saying that a transit line would "maximize the economic benefits derived from ... development on the North Shore (that) is moving at a very rapid pace."
The group took its case to Washington in pursuit of $25 million, meeting with 10 lawmakers in one six-hour stretch that July.
Now, as rail transit returns to the neighborhood after almost a half-century, the Steelers again will lend support.
Last month, the Steelers and nearby Rivers Casino agreed to a three-year deal to pay Port Authority a combined $200,000 to subsidize the T extension. The deal and a similar one by the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and Alco Parking Corp. will ensure free rides for a while.
"We want to see the line be successful, and we think (the subsidy is) a great way to get people accustomed to using it," Rooney said.
About 1 million people attend Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football games, concerts and other events at Heinz Field annually, according to Port Authority.
Rooney envisions the connector as "the first phase in what should be future growth of the line" beyond the North Shore. Over the years, some people envisioned the light-rail line extending to the North Hills, Pittsburgh International Airport or Oakland.
Craig Clark, Rivers Casino
Rivers Casino general manager Craig Clark doesn't consider the casino's financial contribution to be a gamble.
The Rivers, which opened in 2009, took in $320.3 million from slots and table-game play in fiscal 2011, according to the state Gaming Control Board. The casino reports 2.9 million visitors annually.
"We look at it as an opportunity to invest in the infrastructure of the city we call home while supporting area residents as well as our visitors and team members," Clark said, adding that 100 of the casino's 1,800 employees regularly commute by public transit. He believes that number will grow.
Mark Fatla, executive director of Northside Leadership Conference, predicts employment will grow. He estimates about 6,000 people work on the North Shore.
Terry Wirginis, Gateway Clipper Fleet
Terry Wirginis, president of the five-ship Gateway Clipper Fleet that provides water-shuttle service to North Shore events, has mixed feelings about the connector.
"I think it does make sense, and it's a good use of public funds to try to ease congestion Downtown," Wirginis said. "But I object to the idea that everyone's tax dollars have gone into this subway across the river that is directly competitive with water-shuttle service that is completely private.
"I don't think it's fair, and I don't think it's something the government should be involved in."
Steve Bland, Port Authority
The cash-strapped Port Authority will be on the hook for at least $240,000 a year in connector-related operating expenses after factoring in the subsidies, according to agency estimates.
The agency faces a $64 million deficit and plans to cut 35 percent of its service on Sept. 2 to close the budget gap, including elimination of 46 bus routes.
Agency officials have said the cuts could result in 40,000 fewer daily riders, but Bland thinks T ridership could go up if people turn to the T.
"The timing of this project is unfortunate, given the fiscal crisis," Bland said.
David Williams, Taxpayer Protection Alliance
David Williams, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Taxpayer Protection Alliance, said it doesn't appear that taxpayers will get "the biggest bang for their transportation buck" from the connector project.
Aside from the big price tag for a line that extends just 1.2 miles, the agency's inability to project how many people will use the system makes it hard to predict whether taxpayers will get their money's worth, Williams said.
"It seems there like would be so many other priorities that are more significant, like roads and bridges," Williams said. "From a taxpayer's point of view, it just seems so ill-advised."
Merrill Stabile, Alco Parking Corp.
Alco Parking President Merrill Stabile said his company is "putting our money where our mouth is" by subsidizing the connector and lowering all-day parking rates to $6 from $8.
The company, which owns or manages much of the available North Shore parking, stands to gain if connector service becomes popular. North Side Station is in the basement of the 1,300-space West General Robinson Street Garage, which Stabile manages for the Sports & Exhibition Authority and is about 77 percent full on weekdays, according to SEA figures.
"In order to build up on our business, we felt it was the right thing to do," said Stabile, who last fall sought to buy a 3.3-acre parking lot between the two sports stadiums to develop an office building.
"We believe this service is going to be a success and that people are going to be drawn to parking rates that are about $8 a day cheaper on average than what is available Downtown."
Ron Baillie, Carnegie Science Center
Carnegie Science Center co-director Ron Baillie said the connector could boost the center's bottom line if Downtown commuters opt to use one of its 950 parking spaces adjacent to the new Allegheny Station, each costing $6 a day, instead of more expensive ones in the Golden Triangle.
The center won't disclose how much parking revenue it collects. All-day parking rates Downtown average $14.
The connector will help some employees and visitors get to the center more easily. "Bus service to this part of the North Shore is very sketchy at best. A lot of our staff would use transit to get to work if they could," Baillie said.
Scott Waitlevertch, Equitable Gas
Scott Waitlevertch is the spokesman for Equitable Gas on North Shore Drive near PNC Park, which employs 200 there. He said company officials heard "a lot of positive feedback from employees" who commuted to town on the T before today.
Those employees, he said, transferred Downtown to a North Shore-bound bus or walked across the Clemente Bridge to get to work.
"This will be especially good for them in more inclement weather," he said.
Brian Warecki, Pirates
Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki said the connector will "increase the amount of convenient parking that is available to our fans," noting they can catch a free ride on the T from Downtown garages.
Warecki said the team, which drew 1.9 million fans last year, will work with Port Authority to provide extra service when the Pirates expect high attendance, such as fireworks nights.
Alex Johnson, Community College of Allegheny County
CCAC President Alex Johnson said the connector "will provide an additional avenue" for some of the school's 8,700 students who travel to and from the North Side campus, a short walk from Allegheny Station.
He thinks the connector could "further the economic development of the North Shore community by opening shopping, cultural and employment options."
Michael Wudarsky, 21, a first-year CCAC nursing student from Mt. Lebanon, said he'll ride the T to and from school. He was riding it to the Wood Street Station, Downtown, and then transferring to a bus. "Now, I'll be able to just take a straight shot in," he said.
Service starts today
What: Port Authority light-rail T line
Cost: Free in Downtown and the North Shore
New stations: Gateway at Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue; North Side near PNC Park; and Allegheny near Heinz Field
Hours: 5:06 a.m. to 12:44 a.m. weekdays; 5:41 a.m. to 12:48 a.m. Saturdays; 5:41 a.m. to 11:18 p.m. Sundays
Frequency: Every four minutes weekdays during peak travel times; every 10 to 30 minutes on weekends, depending on the hour
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