Saturday and Sunday ridership on the T has soared since the North Shore Connector opened two years ago, and the principal reason can be summed up in a single word: games.
This is different from the weekday bump. The T's extension immediately eased the Downtown parking problem for thousands of commuters.
That 1,255-space parking garage betwixt the North Shore stadia, a white elephant for its first six years, morphed into a cash cow the moment the North Side T station opened below it. North Hills commuters figured out within days of the first underwater voyage that parking there and taking a free ride below the Allegheny River beat paying more to park Downtown and deal with the rush-hour scrum.
That's only half the story, though. Folks take the T in the other direction, too. Any Downtown worker trying to take the T north at the end of a workday knows that Pirates fans can make those cars as tight as a Manhattan subway ride. And sports fans have an even more dramatic impact on weekends.
The rest of this column is going to be one long argument on why the Pirates, the biggest beneficiary of the T, need to pony up to help keep the rides free. Because the baseball team also has been getting a free ride.
These rides are gratis because the Steelers, Rivers Casino, Alco Parking and Stadium Authority began kicking in $360,000 a year when the connector opened in the spring of 2012. (Each of the four entities was responsible for $80,000 a year, with the Steelers and casino paying an additional $20,000 each to get advertising rights in Allegheny Station. Total payments have gone up $10,000 each year since, with the agreement to expire in March 2015.)
Average weekday rail ridership across the T system rose 20 percent between 2011 (the year before the connector opened) and 2013 (the year after). The weekend jump topped 50 percent. That's because there's either a Pirates game, a Steelers game, a Pitt game or Penguins game on about half the Saturdays and Sundays of the year, and much of that jersey-wearing horde rides the T.
Average rail ridership numbers from the Port Authority of Allegheny County:
Some of those extra 5,000 riders on the average weekday are heading to Pirates or Penguins games, too, but it's those extra 6,300 rides over the course of an average weekend that are largely taken by ticket-holders. Even accepting that there's a double count with fans riding to and from games, the number of riders is in the thousands each game.
The Pirates have 81 home games a year, and about half the city's sports weekends belong to them. The Pirates hosted on 13 Saturdays and 14 Sundays in 2013; the Steelers nine Sundays and one Saturday; the Pitt Panther football team six Saturdays; and the Penguins seven Saturdays and five Sundays. (T-using hockey fans ride in the other direction, getting off at the Steel Plaza station.)
Nowhere is the sports impact of the T clearer than at the First Avenue Station Downtown. Almost a mile from PNC Park and more than a mile from Heinz Field, it's the first station in the free zone for fans arriving from the south and east. It went from having 104 parkers on a typical late October Sunday in 2011 to 630 on a Steelers Sunday in 2013, all because of that 10-minute free ride.
Those extra 525 cars weren't an aberration. Evening and weekend revenue at that garage more than doubled between 2011 and 2013.
The Pirates say only 3 percent to 5 percent of their fans ride the T to the games, but that would have meant somewhere between 67,500 and 113,000 fans last year -- most of them riding both ways. If the Pirates only matched their neighbors' donations, the cost to cover these riders would be something like 50 cents a trip. In total, it would be about a sixth of what they pay a rookie.
But the ballclub likes its free ride. Spokesman Brian Warecki said that while the T "is certainly an added convenience'' for Pirates fans, the team doesn't see it increasing attendance. It's not paying.
There aren't many places with a free, river-crossing ride stretching more than a mile. This one happens to land a short walk from the home plate entrance at the ballpark the people financed.
It's long past time for the Pirates to pony up.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.