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North Shore Connector No. 3 on wasteful spending list

| Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

The North Shore Connector is No. 3 in the nation among stimulus-funded projects that waste taxpayer money, two Republican senators say.

In a report released Tuesday, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn and Arizona's John McCain said the $528.8 million light-rail extension beneath the Allegheny River to bring T riders to destinations such as PNC Park and Heinz Field is an example of stimulus dollars spent to fund projects with "questionable goals," or those that "are being mismanaged or were poorly planned."

The "Summertime Blues" report, their third in a series, identifies 100 projects throughout the country that received money from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law 18 months ago by President Obama. Those projects, they said, "give taxpayers the blues."

"Almost immediately, the North Shore connector went over budget, blowing through cost projections at alarming rates," the senators said. "Original estimates put the final tally at approximately $390 million, but quickly ballooned."

Beyond its cost, they said, "The North Shore Connector has become a political hot potato," citing a 2006 Tribune-Review editorial labeling it the "tunnel to nowhere" and warning taxpayers to expect politicians to take credit for jobs and growth it created.

The report notes the stimulus bill helped push the national debt 23 percent higher, to a record $13.2 trillion. It cites as the No. 1 wasteful project $554,763 awarded to the U.S. Forest Service to replace windows in a closed visitor center at Mount St. Helens in Washington, and the No. 2 project as "Dance Draw," an interactive dance software development for which the University of North Carolina at Charlotte received $762,372.

"We owe it to all Americans that are paying taxes and struggling to find jobs, to rebuild our economy without doing additional harm. ... Too many stimulus projects are failing to meet that goal," the senators said -- although they note some projects in the report have merit but are mismanaged or poorly planned.

White House officials and Rep. Mike Doyle, a Forest Hills Democrat, dismissed the publication by Coburn and McCain as a transparent, error-filled partisan attack.

"Not only did they make the mistake of labeling projects as 'unwise Recovery spending' that weren't even Recovery Act projects, but they also attack Recovery Act projects that have been praised by members of their own party," said Liz Oxhorn, White House spokeswoman for the stimulus bill.

"Everyone should keep in mind that in 2004, the North Shore Connector was chosen in a peer-reviewed, merit-selection process as one of the top five transit projects in the country, and the Federal Transit Administration signed a full funding agreement for it," Doyle said. "With the project 75 percent complete, it makes no sense not to finish it."

Construction began in January 2008 and is scheduled to be completed in late 2011, said Jim Ritchie, spokesman for Port Authority of Allegheny County. The 1.2-mile line between Downtown and the North Shore should begin carrying people in early 2012, he said.

Port Authority put $62.5 million in stimulus money toward the project. The senators cited criticism by Gov. Ed Rendell, who in February 2009 described the project as "a tragic mistake" and said, "I wish the project had never started."

But Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said yesterday, "Governor Rendell would disagree that the project was a waste of stimulus money at this point," noting the project was under way when Port Authority sought stimulus money to help pay for it. "We had to finish it at that point; otherwise, we would have spent several hundred million dollars and been left with an unfinished hole in ground," Tuma said.

Rendell and lawmakers are debating how to fill a $475 million hole in the state's transportation budget for bridges, highways and mass transit systems. Port Authority warns its $47 million deficit could bring drastic service cuts and hundreds of layoffs.

The senators chastise the North Shore project for cost overruns. Despite eliminating an $85 million track to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, the project costs about $100 million more than a February 2009 estimate of $435 million, the report said, citing Port Authority's website. Coburn and McCain quote a 2007 audit by state Auditor General Jack Wagner that concluded "poor planning" mushroomed its cost.

But Ritchie said inflation hammered the construction industry in the early 2000s. "It inflated the cost of everything from cement to steel -- all the fundamental things you need to build anything," he said. "Our prices skyrocketed. We incurred 50 to 60 percent increases. So, of course the connector price tag was jacked up."

The connector was an ideal stimulus project, Ritchie said: "It's going to directly support 4,000 jobs. The idea of the stimulus was to put people to work."

He said the connector supports commuters traveling to destinations that include the sports stadiums, Community College of Allegheny County, the Andy Warhol Museum and retailers and restaurants. It supports development that transformed the North Shore from spans of concrete to a vibrant area, Ritchie said.

Ron Naples, chairman of the Pennsylvania Stimulus Oversight Commission, said he couldn't comment on the connector project because he didn't know enough specifics.

"Whenever you have a large chunk of federal funds being spent, you're going to have a debate on the effectiveness of the way it's being used," Naples said.

Additional Information:

Best of the worst

'Summertime Blues' Top 10:

1. Replacing windows at Mount St. Helens visitor center, Washington; U.S. Forest Service, $554,000

2. Interactive dance software development; University of North Carolina at Charlotte, $762,000

3. North Shore Connector; Port Authority of Allegheny County, $62.5 million

4. Stalled construction of two fire stations, San Antonio, Texas; Federal Emergency Management Agency, $7.3 million

5. Abandoned train station converted into museum; Glassboro, N.J., $1.2 million

6. Ant study, Southwest Indian Ocean islands and East Africa; California Academy of Sciences, $1.9 million

7. Road project that threatens two dozen homes, Newark, Ohio, $1.8 million

8. Iron furnace abandoned for about 140 years to get facelift; Fitchburg, Ky., $357,700

9. Power plant construction that won't begin for at least two years, Kern County, Calif.; Hydrogen Energy California, $308 million

10. Replacing 5-year-old sidewalks; Boynton, Okla., $89,300

Source: Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

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