How did Port Authority get into this deep, expensive hole of river tunnel?
Underground rail extension to North Shore overrode servicing Oakland or convention center
March 15, 2009 8:00 AM
Keith Wargo, the Port Authority's director of the North Shore Connector project, shows curing concrete covered with insulation last month at the lowest point of the inbound tunnel under the Allegheny River.
By Jon Schmitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The North Shore Connector, a project that once enjoyed broad-based support across local, state and federal lines, has acquired a chorus of critics that seems to grow as fast as its cost.
Even Gov. Ed Rendell, whose administration has played a key role in advancing the subway extension, has chimed in, saying, "I guess you've got to finish it, but it's a tragic mistake."
Since planning began more than a decade ago, the half-built project has grown in cost from an estimated $350 million to more than $550 million, despite steps by the Port Authority to scale it back. The 1.2-mile extension will go from Gateway Center, Downtown, to new stations at PNC Park and Heinz Field.
The authority is trying to cover a $117.8 million cost overrun, the latest in a series of overruns that have slowed and even threatened to kill the project. Officials believe they have secured about $62 million from the federal stimulus legislation, but where the rest will come from remains in doubt.
Apart from the cost, critics say a light-rail extension to Oakland should have been a higher priority. They complain that the connector's alignment doesn't serve the Downtown convention center or most North Side destinations other than the stadiums.
Those issues were raised almost from the time the connector was conceived in the 1990s. A variety of political, financial and practical forces pushed the concerns aside.
"Certainly Downtown Pittsburgh to the airport is a greater priority and Downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland, and why or how this project became the priority is a serious question that must be asked ..."
--Then-state Sen. Jack Wagner, one of few dissenters at a June 2000 public hearing
The idea of a Downtown-to-North Side rail link goes back more than 100 years.
In what some would say is a familiar Pittsburgh refrain, the idea was pitched or studied in 1906, 1910, 1917, 1919, 1923, 1926, 1941, 1949, 1951, 1961, 1963, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1985 and 1988.
"For the lack of financing, political-faction agreement and/or public support, no system was ever built," noted a 1967 report by consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The Pittsburgh-Area Transportation Study in February 1963 touted a "North Side Connection" from Downtown under the river to Allegheny Center with a moving sidewalk to the planned site of Three Rivers Stadium (another project that would arrive years late and over budget).
"Not only would the stadium's special events be serviced by this station but also, with all-day parking space available for about 5,000 autos, the stadium site could be a major transfer point for commuter trips to both Allegheny Center and the Golden Triangle," the report said.
The cost estimate: $11.2 million.
"It's a fresh new look at the North Side."
--Allen D. Biehler, then planning and engineering director for the Port Authority, announcing on Aug. 25, 1994, that the authority would study light-rail extensions to Oakland and the North Side
Few were more closely involved in the North Shore Connector than Mr. Biehler.
He helped conceive the project as a Port Authority executive, then left the agency in 1996 for a private firm, Frederic R. Harris Inc., which got a multimillion-dollar contract to serve as the authority's consultant on the connector. Mr. Biehler headed the consulting team for Harris.
Still later, as Mr. Rendell's transportation secretary, Mr. Biehler actively supported the Port Authority's efforts to secure federal and state funding for the connector.
"PennDOT recognizes the importance of the North Shore Connector project to enhance mobility, to serve the ongoing development of Pittsburgh's North Shore and to strengthen the overall economic vitality of the Pittsburgh region," he wrote in an Aug. 26, 2004, letter to Paul Skoutelas, then the Port Authority's executive director.
Mr. Biehler declined to be interviewed for this story. His spokesman, Rich Kirkpatrick, issued a brief statement saying Mr. Biehler "believes the project is well along and needs to be finished."
"We believe strongly that connecting the North Side, the sports teams and development on what arguably could be the best property in urban America depends very much on tying Downtown and the lower North Side together."
--Then-Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, May 1996
After Mr. Biehler's August 1994 announcement, the Port Authority embarked on a study of extending the light-rail system to Oakland and the North Shore.
Then, politics intruded.
In 1996, a newly elected Republican majority on the Allegheny County board of commissioners, Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer, began shaking up county government and its related agencies.
They replaced all but one member of the Port Authority board and in May 1996 directed the new board to cancel the light-rail study, on which nearly $3 million had already been spent. They said the projected cost of extensions to Oakland and the North Side was too great.
That angered Mr. Murphy and public transit advocates. The Port Authority's executive leadership, including then-Executive Director William Millar and Mr. Biehler, would leave by year's end, frustrated by the commissioners' meddling.
A light-rail extension appeared dead -- but that would soon change.
"Without a transit link to Downtown, it doesn't seem as viable."
--Mr. Cranmer, in July 1996, after a briefing by Steelers ownership about plans for development near Three Rivers Stadium
It took less than two months for revival of the light-rail extension, but when it rose from the scrap heap, it was missing a huge piece -- the line to Oakland.
In early July, the commissioners asked then-Port Authority board chairman Neal H. Holmes to "reinvestigate the plausibility" of extending the system to serve Three Rivers Stadium, Carnegie Science Center, Community College of Allegheny County and possible future developments.
Mr. Cranmer said at the time that his decision to revive the study was influenced by discussions with the Pirates and Steelers about their development plans for the North Shore.
Meanwhile, Mr. Murphy was eager to pursue a plan to extend the light-rail system to the North Side and possibly later to the North Hills and Pittsburgh International Airport.
"I always saw going over to the North Side as a first step to running it out the [West] busway toward the airport," Mr. Murphy, now a senior fellow for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., said last week. He also foresaw a North Hills extension on the Parkway North corridor.
Meanwhile, the county had no interest in reviving plans to build a line to Oakland, and county officials recommended that the city move ahead with its North Side proposal, according to internal memos from October and November 1996.
Oakland was dropped, Mr. Murphy said, because the Port Authority thought only one extension could be financed; the Oakland line was projected to be far more expensive; and good bus service already existed between Oakland and Downtown.
Mr. Murphy also was motivated by burgeoning development plans for the North Shore that would come to include new baseball and football stadiums.
But he said that the popular notion that the light-rail project was driven or influenced by the Pirates and Steelers is "not true." They were more concerned about building their stadiums. "I don't think they had a lot to do with it one way or another."
Mr. Skoutelas, who followed Mr. Millar as Port Authority executive director, agreed. He said in July 2000 that sports events would account for only 20 percent of ridership on the new segment.
"A Gateway alignment would enhance the level of regional (Light Rail Transit) service to the Golden Triangle and North Shore by serving the major destinations with a single through line. A Steel Plaza alignment would compromise LRT service by rendering the heart of the Golden Triangle a spur line."
--Mr. Murphy, in a July 3, 2000, letter to Mr. Skoutelas
Another fateful decision in the evolution of the North Shore Connector was to start the extension at Gateway Center and tunnel beneath the Allegheny.
That option emerged as one of two finalists after studies of nearly two dozen possible alignments.
The other would start the extension at Steel Plaza, taking it past the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and cross the river on a new or existing bridge.
In August 2000, Port Authority opted for the Gateway alignment, the preferred choice of Mr. Murphy, then-Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey, the Pirates and Steelers, and most North Side and Downtown interests. A separate spur would be built to a new station at 11th Street, near the convention center.
"There is no question that the Gateway is the preferred and the only way to go with this extension," said city transportation planner Patrick Hassett at a public hearing at the time.
Among the few dissenting voices at the time were those of Mr. Wagner (now state auditor general) and Allegheny County Council.
"A major expansion of our mass transit system should have a greater objective than serving two stadiums," council said in a July 2000 resolution opposing the Gateway alignment.
"Let's tell the truth. The convention center is being ignored. The fix is in for the Gateway alternative," Mr. Wagner said.
"The project has been endorsed by numerous local, state and federal elected officials and received overwhelming support from the community in public hearings."
--Mr. Skoutelas, in a Nov. 5, 2001, letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette defending the Gateway alignment
Within months of the decision to build the Gateway extension, the financial problems began.
The state warned the authority in January 2001 that it should not expect more than the typical contribution to such projects, 16.7 percent. With the Port Authority expecting only 50 percent funding from the federal government, that left a $130 million gap in what was then a $390 million project.
After vigorous lobbying by Mr. Murphy, Mr. Skoutelas, Steelers vice president Art Rooney Jr., Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy and U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, among others, the Federal Transit Administration agreed to pay 80 percent of the project cost.
The local share, to be paid by the county, was 3.3 percent, or less than $15 million.
In August 2005, the first construction bids came in 25 percent over budget. Bids for subsequent phases would be as much as 100 percent over budget.
In December 2005, the authority board scrapped plans for the convention center spur, the station at 11th Street and the purchase of four new light-rail vehicles, to trim $80 million and keep the project within budget.
By the following June, however, the projected cost had grown to $435 million. Still, the Federal Transit Administration finalized a commitment to pay 80 percent, clearing the way for construction.
By January of this year, runaway inflation in the construction industry had pushed the price to $552.8 million, forcing the authority to look for another $117.8 million.
Mr. Cranmer, now a private consultant, said it was a mistake to build a tunnel rather than using a bridge.
"I do agree that the T should go to the North Side. Do I think it should've gone under the river? No, not then, not now. It was just too expensive."
Mr. Millar, now executive director of the American Public Transportation Association, said overruns are not unusual in such projects.
"With public projects of any sort -- stadiums, rail systems, highways -- you do your best to estimate the cost but as you go along, factors come in that are out of your control. People want to pretend that during the planning phase it's very scientific, and a lot of it is. But a lot of it is judgment."
"At this point, it would be foolish not to complete the project," Mr. Wagner said last week. "But it could have been so much more."
"I'm one of the ones who still think it's a good project," Mr. Murphy said.