New Tunnel to Aid Pittsburgh Sports Fans, at a Price

Fri November 21, 2008 - National Edition
Dan Nephin



PITTSBURGH (AP) Many sports-crazed fans who don’t want to deal with traffic must walk or take the bus over the bridges of the Allegheny River to watch their Steelers or Pirates.

The city’s 25-mi. (40 km) light rail system won’t get them to the neighborhood that is home to Heinz Field, PNC Park, museums and, soon, a huge slots casino. It stops short of the river, in downtown Pittsburgh.

But now the commuter line is being extended 1.2 mi. (1.9 km) through a tunnel under the river in a $435 million project that will take rail users onto the North Shore, whether it’s to wave Terrible Towels at Steelers games or admire the work of Andy Warhol.

While a certain convenience for sports fans, the project has drawn criticism for its high cost — and where it doesn’t go.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County said the North Shore Connector, expected to be completed in 2011, is a sound investment in mass transit that will spur development.

But the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think-tank based in suburban Pittsburgh, believes the project will only pay off if it is extended 15 mi. (24 km) to Pittsburgh International Airport.

“We look at things on the basis of their cost and benefits and on a cost-benefit basis, this doesn’t come anywhere close,’’ said Jake Haulk, the institute’s president.

Port authority officials said it’s possible that one day the rail line, called the “T’’ by locals, will be extended.

But Haulk said that wouldn’t happen in the next 20 years. “That’s a pipe dream,’’ he said.

Workers have been using a 500-ton (453.6 t) boring machine to create two tunnels under the Allegheny.

In July, the machine punched one 22-ft.-diameter (6.7 m) tunnel through to downtown from the North Shore — a length of 2,240 ft. (682.7 m), said Keith Wargo, project director, on a recent tour. Crews have drilled more than 100 ft. (30.5 m) of the second tunnel.

As the boring machine eats its way through the earth some 25 ft. (7.6 m) below the riverbed, workers install interlocking concrete support segments that form the tunnel’s lining.

Approximately three-quarters of the extension, or just under a mile, will be underground. The project also includes revamping the current final stop downtown to link it to the extension.

The cost was originally put at $395 million. Eighty percent of the project, or $348 million, is being funded with a federal grant, with 16.66 percent, or about $72.5 million, coming from the state and the rest from local government.

That additional money could come from the authority’s capital budget, which could mean delays on other authority projects, said Winston Simmonds, the port authority’s rail operations and engineering officer.

He said the Federal Transit Administration approved the project before energy costs began to rise and a global demand for steel, concrete and other construction materials drove prices up beyond the 3.3 percent anticipated annual increase. The project also was to have included a link to the downtown David L. Lawrence Convention Center, but that was dropped because of budget constraints.

Costs are expected to increase even more, though the authority can’t say by how much.

“We’re looking at different things in terms of the different contracts to see what we can do to reduce costs and mitigate some of the cost overruns, so it would be ill-advised of me to put a number out that we haven’t firmly vetted yet,’’ Simmonds said.

Nationwide, public transportation systems are expanding in cities like New York and Washington as ridership increases. Public transit use in the United States was up 3 percent the first three months of the year compared with the first quarter of 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

In Pittsburgh alone, nearly 676,000 people rode light rail in October, up more than 4 percent from approximately 675,000 passengers in October 2007. Ridership was also up in September and August.

Approximately 27,000 people use the light rail each day, and officials estimate that 14,300 people will use the North Shore Connector daily when it’s completed.

The Port Authority estimates its per rider cost at $6, of which most riders pay $2.50, with the balance coming from state and local subsidies. But the Allegheny Institute believes the cost to the agency is even higher.

Kathleen Connolly, of Ben Avon, a suburb just west of Pittsburgh, questioned how many commuters would park on the North Shore and take light rail into downtown. She took light rail Friday to get her driver’s license taken downtown.

“The T is nice, beautiful, easy and clean, but it serves the South Hills and Station Square,’’ a shopping and entertainment complex just across the Monongahela River from downtown.

A better project, she said, would be extending light rail west to the airport or to the city’s eastern suburbs.

“They’re not hiding the fact that it’s for entertainment,’’ she said. “It’s not for commuter ease.’’

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato has said he would have preferred to expand the transportation system elsewhere, but supports the project because he did not want to lose federal funding.

Edmund Effort, a Pittsburgh dentist, was returning to his office Friday after taking light rail two stops to get a haircut. He said he understands criticism of the line, but that cities need good public transportation systems.

“Chicago, New York, Washington — they all have good systems,’’ he said. “Eventually, it makes sense.’’

Simmonds, the Port Authority’s rail operations officer, said the project has created more than 1,000 jobs. The precast concrete segments that line the tunnel, he noted, were manufactured in nearby Blairsville.

Critics like Haulk said the job creation doesn’t justify the project.

The Port Authority also has been criticized for boring a tunnel instead of building a bridge or using an existing one for the project, something officials said would have cost about the same but caused too much downtown disruption.

The Port Authority cut bus routes by 15 percent last year because of rising operational costs, and in January, it implemented a 25-cent fare increase to deal with budget shortfalls. But Simmonds said money for the connector does not come out of operating funds.

The Port Authority also is preparing for a possible strike by 2,200 unionized employees.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 has been working under terms of a contract that expired June 30, but the authority’s board voted last month to impose a new contract on Dec. 1.