Heinz Field expansion wrangling heats up

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The Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority is playing tough defense in its battle against the Steelers over a proposed 3,000-seat expansion at Heinz Field.

In a formal response to a lawsuit filed in December by the team, the SEA argued that it is under no obligation to pay two-thirds of the cost of the addition because it doesn't meet the definition of a capital improvement under the Steelers' lease.

At the same time, the authority showed some offense, contending that the Steelers should be barred from asserting their claims because they rejected "reasonable funding proposals" to pay for the expansion and other projects and by "refusing and failing" to meet the criteria for capital improvements.

The response marks the latest chapter in the legal wrangling between the two sides over the $40 million addition to the south end zone at Heinz Field.

In its lawsuit, the team claims a clause in its lease requires the SEA to cover two-thirds of the cost of a "designated expansion" of no more than 10,000 seats in that area of the stadium.

But the SEA claimed in its response, filed Thursday, that the project first must meet the definition of a capital improvement but does not, mainly because the addition or modification has not been installed in at least half of all NFL stadiums, with at least 25 percent of the cost being paid by federal, state or local governments.

While the Steelers maintained in the lawsuit that Heinz Field ranks 25th out of 31 NFL stadiums in seating capacity, the SEA countered that far less than half of the venues have installed additions or modifications where at least a quarter of the cost was funded by government. It also stated that additional seating isn't needed to keep Heinz Field competitive, as the Steelers have asserted.

The team, the response said, apparently interprets the relevant lease clause "as giving it the right to obtain a seat expansion of up to 10,000 additional seats ... just by demanding such without meeting the capital improvement criteria."

In the lawsuit, the Steelers argued that the proposed project, as a designated expansion, is automatically deemed to be a capital improvement. The SEA denied that.

The team went to court after a deal to finance the addition fell apart. The proposed agreement would have paid for the expansion through a $1 increase in an existing surcharge on Steelers tickets and a new parking surcharge of $2 to $3 at lots around Heinz Field during home games.

In the lawsuit, it claimed that the SEA was contesting the expansion because it doesn't have the money to fund its share and "is unwilling to take the necessary steps" to raise it.

But the SEA turned the tables in its response, charging that the Steelers' proposals to fund the expansion "were not reasonable" and that the team rejected its "reasonable proposals" to raise money.

As a result, the SEA told Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James that the Steelers' claims should be barred and the case should be decided in its favor.

The Steelers were unavailable for comment Friday.

In addition to the funding for the expansion, the team is seeking $5 million in reimbursement for repairs to the Heinz Field control room. It also wants the SEA to pay for a second scoreboard at the north end of the stadium. The SEA maintains it is not obligated to pay for either of those items.

Because of the court fight, the new seats won't be in place for the 2013 season, as originally planned.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. First Published February 2, 2013 5:00 AM


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