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Transit Follies #1: The North Shore Connector

Apr 2


What better way to celebrate April Fools week than with a series of transit follies! Each day this week, the Antiplanner will describe a transit folly that is not in Portland, Denver, San Jose, or another city that I’ve harped on so much in the past. By the end of the week, I hope you will agree that transit agencies everywhere in the U.S. have been made foolish by the misincentives created by federal pork barrel.

Light-rail trains get a chuckle over how transit agencies have fooled taxpayers into supporting their ridiculously expensive rail lines.

First up is the North Shore Connector, an extension of Pittsburgh’s light-rail system. Imagine you run the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the transit agency that serves Pittsburgh, a region of about 1.5 million people. But your region’s population is declining. Pittsburgh’s population is declining. Downtown Pittsburgh is declining. Transit ridership is dropping like a stone.

So what do you do? Why, spend $435 million on a 1.2-mile extension of your light-rail line! Of course, it is so logical. Especially when most of it is other people’s money (or, as a powerful Pennsylvania state senator calls it, “OPM”).

It is breathtaking to think about it: $435 million on a mere 1.2 miles. That’s $362.5 million a mile! For that, you could build ten miles of a four-lane freeway. Why is it so expensive? Because most of it is a tunnel under the Allegheny River connecting downtown Pittsburgh with the North Shore, where many downtown businesses are fleeing to get out of the blighted Golden Triangle.

The North Shore is in the foreground, with downtown Pittsburgh in the background. The tunnel will be to the left of the major freeway bridge in the center of the photo. The Steelers play in the stadium at far right; the Pirates play in the stadium at the left

Pittsburgh needs this line, says a Port Authority official, “if Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are to further grow and develop.” Further grow? I don’t see any growth. The Pittsburgh metropolitan area lost 3 percent of its population in the last 15 years. In the same period, Allegheny County lost more than 8 percent of its residents, Pittsburgh lost 15 percent, and transit ridership dropped by 22 percent.

Building the North Shore Connector, adds the transit official, “effectively expands the city’s central business district.” But what it really does is further promote the decline of the existing downtown area.

“Given the fact that much of downtown is in serious decline and in need of a lot of help,” says the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, “it boggles the mind that anyone would believe that creating additional government-directed and -subsidized competition for downtown office and retail space is a good thing.”

The Port Authority claims that the chief benefit of the North Shore Connector is that it “will support approximately $377 million in new economic development.” Excuse me, we are spending $435 million tax dollars to “support” $377 million in new development? Note that they didn’t claim outright that the light-rail line will generate this development — the development is taking place whether the line is built or not.

The new line will also serve the Pittsburgh Steelers football stadium and the appropriately named Pittsburgh Pirates baseball stadium. Needless to say, it is extremely important to federal taxpayers that Pittsburgh sports fans can get to their stadiums by light rail. I believe it is in the Constitution somewhere.

The light blue line shows the North Shore Connector (click on the map to see a larger version, then use your “back” button to return here). Notice the red line forebodingly projects a future extension to the airport. How many billions will that cost?

What is really propelling the connector is other people’s money. Allegheny County is only putting up $14.5 million of its own money. Another $72.5 million is coming from the state. The rest is federal, including $261.2 million in transit funds and $86.8 million in flexible funds. Flexible means the money could have been spent on either highways or transit; this way, the Port Authority has managed to capture it instead of some highway agency. Construction has already begun, but they don’t expect to be done until 2011.

How did they manage to get OPM for this boondoggle? Through the time-honored transit agency practice known as lying. Originally, the project was expected to cost $390 million and to carry about 10,000 riders a day. That wasn’t good enough for the Federal Transit Administration, which gave it a “low” rating.

So the Port Authority cut off three-tenths of a mile and a station, reducing the cost estimate to $363 million while somehow upping its ridership estimate to 16,400 people a day. That was sufficient to meet FTA threshholds, and the agency approved the project.

The actual cost ended up $72 million more than the estimate that won federal funding, and $45 million more than the estimate that was denied federal funding. Meanwhile, ridership projections dropped to 14,300; we can only imagine what the actual ridership will be. No matter how many ride the thing, you can be sure that the Port Authority will declare the project a great success. Would you expect them to brag that they wasted your money?

Part of the problem is light rail. Maybe the Allegheny River needs another bridge, or even a tunnel, to deal with traffic; the existing bridges connecting downtown with the North Shore are supposed to be pretty congested (though the Allegheny Institute says Pittsburgh has more serious bottlenecks elsewhere). If a highway bridge or tunnel were built, the cost (which would be a lot lower than $435 million) could be shared among all the autos, trucks, and buses that used it. By building a dedicated light-rail tunnel, the Port Authority is demanding huge subsidies for a transportation link that will be used by a relatively tiny number of people.

But the real problem is federal transit funding. Unlike highway funding, which is allocated to the states using a strict formula, transit funding is provided on a first-come-first-served basis. This means that the transit agencies that come up with the most expensive proposals (provided they meet the FTA’s minimal threshholds) get the most money. The solution, which Congress should do in the next transportation reauthorization bill in 2009, is to put transit funding on a strict formula as well.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner