Subway tunnel is hardly a money pit

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It's official. I'm the last guy in America who thinks the North Shore Connector is a good idea.

A couple of Republican senators west of the Mississippi, one of them John McCain, pointed to the $62.5 million in stimulus money used here to finish the connector and said that was "throwing good money after bad."

Do they think it would have been better to just stop and leave a $466 million hole in the ground?

That seems nuts.

The senators won't have to look hard to find agreement in Western Pennsylvania, however. The project has fewer believers than the Pirates' rebuilding program. By early Wednesday afternoon, more than half of the 1,000 people taking a PG poll said spending the last $62.5 million to finish the $528 million project was wasteful. Only 18 percent thought it a good use of money.

I can appreciate balking at that overall price tag. It's more than five times Ben Roethlisberger's contract. (Big Ben, coincidentally, found it prudent to go underground for a stretch this summer, too.) But is it still really the majority view that this country should continue to build its transportation infrastructure on the premise that gasoline will be cheap forever?

A light-rail line that stretches from the South Hills to the North Side is going to look much better when gas shoots back over $4 a gallon. Or do you think we'll hold steady at $2.75 a gallon even after we come out of this worldwide recession?

That only happens if we can persuade a couple of billion people in India and China to stop industrializing and driving.

None of this means this T extension is ideal. People argue the T line should have gone to Oakland first, and they're right. But everyone seems to forget that Allegheny County Commissioner Larry Dunn, when he briefly held the reins of power in the mid-'90s, killed the Spine Line project dead.

The North Shore Connector is our consolation prize. If the federal government didn't build it here, it would have built something equally expensive somewhere else.

When this opens early in 2012, it can serve some of the roughly 1,000 people who work in the Del Monte and Equitable buildings, the visitors in the three hotels around the stadiums, and the tens of thousands going to football and baseball games, concerts, the casino, restaurants and the Carnegie Science Center.

Most of that sits on what 10 years ago was nothing but a sea of asphalt. (It seems increasingly likely that the next generation of Pittsburghers will think of Downtown as a place that rivers run through, rather than around.)

The Port Authority has myriad money problems that have nothing to do with this federal grant. It's talking about massive service cuts and a $4 fare for all T rides -- which can't happen if we want riders. But there should be some wiggle room.

"The $4 fare from the North Shore to [Downtown] is definitely not a lock at this point," Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said Wednesday.

The authority intends to overhaul its fare policy when the connector opens in 2012. It's fiddling with the notion of some northern bus routes making their turnaround at the North Shore station rather than Downtown, with passengers transferring to the T at no charge. Trolleys run mostly empty after South Hills riders disembark Downtown, so there should be plenty of room for riders entering across the river.

Such a plan also would keep at least some buses out of Downtown gridlock, a gift to all rush-hour commuters.

As for the people upset because this is a tunnel instead of a bridge, engineers looked at the railroad bridge option but opted against it. I've heard some riders say they would fear going through a river tunnel, but passenger trains have been running under the rivers that frame Manhattan for more than 100 years, and they don't stop even when an airline pilot lands his plane in the Hudson. A multibillion, multiyear construction project began last year to add two new tracks under that river.

Regions that offer residents varied transportation options will be the ones that succeed in this century. You can call it coincidence, but the regions that suffered some of the worst real estate crashes in recent years -- Las Vegas, much of California and Florida, and Sen. McCain's Phoenix -- are almost entirely built on the premise of cheap energy. That's going away.

The only shame in extending light rail is not extending it far enough, but this is the Port Authority's last big project for the foreseeable future.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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