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True tales of transit folly

| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005

Too bad the North Shore Connector, the Port Authority's $393 million light-rail tunnel under the Allegheny River, never will suffer the same fate as Skybus, the idiotic mass-transit system that almost was built in Allegheny County 40 years ago.

Skybus is an old joke now. But back then it was a key part of a grand but typically misbegotten plan dreamed up by the public-private elites running Pittsburgh to save the region's shriveling manufacturing economy.

An automated electric 60-mile commuter system of rubber-wheeled cars that would run on its own concrete guide ways, Skybus was supposed to become a demonstration project for a new mass transit industry to be centered in Pittsburgh.

Backed by the Democratic Party machine and corporate goliaths Westinghouse and Alcoa, and costing about $4 billion in today's money, Skybus looked like a certainty -- until, miraculously, it began fragmenting in the late 1960s.

A steel-wheeled alternative rail system was proposed just as "Nobody's Boy" Pete Flaherty, the anti-machine Democrat who became mayor of Pittsburgh in 1969, declared he didn't like Skybus' secretive, elitist origins, its safety problems or its deliberate neglect of poor neighborhoods.

Flaherty pulled every political and legal stunt he could to sabotage it. So did Republican Allegheny County Commissioner William Hunt, who rallied small-town mayors whose communities would not be served by Skybus' routes.

In Washington, D.C., Commissioner Hunt made contact with Paul Weyrich, then an aide to Republican Sen. Gordon Allott of Colorado. Weyrich, today one of the most important conservative political strategists in Washington, had a keen interest in urban mass transit. (He still does, as you can read in a profile of Weyrich in today's Focus magazine.)

After checking out Skybus' 1.7-mile demonstration loop at South Park, Weyrich told Sen. Allott he didn't think its clunky technology was worthy of federal funding, Weyrich told me recently in Washington. After Allott gave a speech in the Senate saying exactly that, Weyrich said executives at Westinghouse, Alcoa and the Port Authority went crazy.

They traveled to D.C. and desperately tried to "lobby" him to leave Skybus alone, Weyrich said, adding that he was offered such things as a free 30-day trip to Europe to study light-rail systems. Weyrich rebuffed them.

Later, he and Sen. Allott were summoned to the office of Republican Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, the Senate leader. There, Weyrich said, Sen. Scott told them he'd lose a six-figure campaign contribution if federal funding was not made available for Skybus.

Sen. Allott didn't relent. "He told me to redouble the effort," said Weyrich, who worked closely with renegade Mayor Flaherty as Allott put language in a Senate bill specifically saying no federal money could be spent on Skybus.

Skybus soon died of its many fatal wounds. But killing it didn't matter much in the long run. We still ended up with an expensive, mismanaged, subsidy-dependent government transit system that includes underused busways and a low-speed light-rail line for middle-class people.

Despite the transparent foolishness of the North Shore Connector, it'll never suffer Skybus' fate. Everyone with the local, state or federal political power to stop it is either for it or pretends not to notice what a waste of money it is.

The way the national transit racket works today, with each city and state allocated its greasy slice of the federal pork roast, the future of our "Tunnel to Hardly Anywhere" is secure. This time the transit fix is in.

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