North Shore Connector, you're looking good

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The North Shore Connector has to be the most reviled tunnel-boring project since that North Side prison escape of 1997.

Check that. That's not fair to the prison escapees. Plenty of people found them entertaining. (Where have you gone, Nuno Pontes?) But the $435 million North Shore Connector has been lambasted in ways the multibillion-dollar Mon-Fayette Expressway-To-Nowhere never has been.

Yet with gas at $4 a gallon, the North Shore Connector looks better each day. Any extension of light rail looks better.

It's possible the subway under the Allegheny River might wind up a bit like Mayor Sophie Masloff's idea for a new ballpark on the North Shore back in 1991: At first the object of ridicule, packing in crowds once it's in place.

The shame of this extension is, of course, that it doesn't go farther and that it should be going in a different direction. But Allegheny County killed plans for the "Spine Line'' to Oakland back when Larry Dunn ran the county in the mid-1990s as if he were a double agent for another region.

Pittsburgh's consolation prize was this 1.2-mile light-rail line that manages to go from Downtown to the one big slice of land in the city where nobody lives. The PG transportation writer, Joe Grata, has estimated it would take well more than $1 billion and 15 years to plan, design and build a line to Oakland "even if it were to get on the federal list of projects competing for limited funds.''

The North Shore Connector would attract more riders if it continued to the Community College of Allegheny County or Allegheny General Hospital. But if this is as far as federal dollars will take it, take it.

It likely will get more riders than most people think.

The average weekday ridership for light rail in April was up almost 12 percent from the year before, going from roughly 23,400 to 26,100. Gasoline was only about $2.75 a gallon in April 2007 and only about $3.30 this spring, so ridership likely has risen even further since, as anyone riding the crowded cars would guess.

A friend driving up from Morgantown, W.Va., for the Pirates' season opener last April parked in South Hills Village and took the T, shaving about 22 miles from his round trip. He was in a party of three, so parking and fares each way totaled $17.60, yet that was still cheaper than extra miles and parking around PNC Park would have been. Those savings would be greater at $4 a gallon.

With restaurants, hotels and office buildings filling in between the stadiums, more people are going to make such choices, in both directions, every day. There just aren't enough choices.

Bus ridership actually dropped from about 212,000 to 200,000 in the same period that T ridership went up, largely because so many suburban routes were eliminated when Port Authority made budget cuts last year.

"Those were the routes that really served the marginal transit riders [who] are most likely to switch to riding a bus as gas prices go up,'' Chris Briem, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social Urban Research, noted in his blog, "Null Space."

"Maybe the Port Authority should be thinking about putting back some of those routes?"

Maybe. Most commuters prefer to drive, but costs are compelling them to choose mass transit. As a colleague who has begun taking the bus two or three times a week from the North Hills put it, "in the trade-off between inconvenience and expense, the inconvenience is worth it.''

Why are we building the North Shore Connector? That's the wrong question. The right questions are: Where should light-rail go next? Is there any way to speed construction?

More than 800,000 people in this seven-county metro area drive alone to work each day, sending hundreds of millions of dollars out their tailpipes to places such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

It would be better to keep that money circulating here, but America needs to undergo a massive transportation restructuring first. The North Shore Connector is only the beginning.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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