It might have been a new low for a project that has become a magnet for criticism: A report on Tuesday lumped Pittsburgh's North Shore Connector with cocaine-sniffing monkeys as examples of government waste.
Two U.S. senators released a report alleging misspending in the $862 billion federal economic stimulus program, and cited the Port Authority's North Shore Connector as one of 100 projects "that give taxpayers the blues."
The authority quickly answered the criticism leveled by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., saying they had mischaracterized the project's intent and its benefits.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, also defended the project and said the report "is first and foremost a partisan political attack intended to mislead the public into thinking the stimulus bill didn't work."
The senators' report, "Summertime Blues," questioned the allocation of $62.5 million in stimulus funds to the connector, which it said "will primarily serve to bring commuters to sporting events and a casino."
It also noted cost overruns that pushed the price from an original estimate of $390 million to the current $528.8 million.
"Unfortunately, the North Shore Connector has been plagued with problems since its inception, making it seem in this case that federal officials are throwing good money after bad," the report said.
Among the other stimulus-funded projects targeted in the report were $71,623 to Wake Forest University for research on how monkeys react under the influence of cocaine; $294,958 to the same university for studying whether yoga can "reduce the frequency and/or severity of hot flashes" in menopausal women; and $341,000 to plant palm trees in Fresno, Calif.
Stimulus money helped rescue the connector project after inflation and delays put it in jeopardy of being halted short of completion. It is now about 75 percent complete and scheduled to begin passenger service to new stations near PNC Park and Heinz Field in March 2012.
"With an infusion of more than $62 million in stimulus money, the project was taken off life support. But whether it will provide a true benefit to the city is also a matter of controversy, given that it will primarily serve to bring commuters to sporting events and a casino," the senators' report said.
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie challenged that assertion, saying the North Shore "has become one of the booming areas of the Pittsburgh region. It's not just PNC Park and Heinz Field."
In addition to the Carnegie Science Center, Community College of Allegheny County and Andy Warhol Museum, the connector will serve several developments that occurred after the project began, he said.
They include corporate centers for Del Monte and Equitable Resources, with more than 1,000 employees; three hotels; several restaurants; the amphitheater that is under construction; and the riverfront park.
Mr. Ritchie said the project cost was driven up by runaway inflation that affected the construction industry worldwide.
"The prices of basic construction materials such as steel and concrete skyrocketed. Unfortunately, this hit after the project's final design and during the period Port Authority was bidding construction work," he said.
The authority responded by downsizing the project, eliminating a planned spur to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and making other changes to cut costs, including closing the Gateway Center station during construction.
Had the project not received stimulus money, the authority could have been forced to halt it, and the millions invested in design and the first stages of construction would've been wasted, Mr. Ritchie said.
"The North Shore Connector was an ideal candidate for stimulus money because it was already in the works and under construction and providing thousands of jobs and supporting economic development on the North Shore," he said. "That was the very basis of the stimulus program."
Mr. Doyle said "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. With the project 75 percent complete, it makes no sense not to finish it."
The McCain-Coburn report said the stimulus program as a whole was a failure. The legislation "passed with assurances that it would stem the loss of American jobs and keep the economy from floundering. As most can see, it hasn't," they wrote.
"Eighteen months since the law's passage, millions of jobs are still gone and the economy is as uncertain as ever. The only thing getting a boost is our national debt," the senators said.
The Obama administration recently reported that the stimulus program has created or preserved about 3 million jobs and is expected to provide about 500,000 more by year's end.
The senators' assertions also run contrary to findings last week by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's and a former adviser to Mr. McCain, and Princeton economist Alan Blinder, that the stimulus program and federal bailouts of financial institutions likely averted a depression.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.