Free 'T' on subway to North Shore in works
Workers install a panel at the entrance to the new Gateway Station on Stanwix Street. The subway spur line is expected to be riding the rails sometime in March.
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Pittsburgh's Stadium Authority board is expected to vote today on a deal with the Port Authority that would provide free light rail rides on the North Shore Connector.
The Stadium Authority and a private parking operator would pay the transit agency an annual lump sum to underwrite free service between Downtown and the new North Side station, situated next to PNC Park, said Mary Conturo, executive director of the Stadium Authority.
The three-year deal calls for a $160,000 payment in the first year, increasing by $5,000 per year. Alco Parking, which manages or controls most of the parking on the North Shore, will pay half of the subsidy, Ms. Conturo said.
The parties have a mutual option to extend the contract for two years.
The agreement requires approval from the Stadium Authority board and the Port Authority board, which next meets in January.
Transit rides -- buses and subway -- currently are free in the Golden Triangle. Crossing the river to the North Shore or Station Square costs $2.25.
Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said he hopes the free rides will promote commuter parking on the North Shore, freeing up Downtown spaces for shoppers and other midday visitors.
"Right now, if you come Downtown on a weekday, you're hard-pressed to find a space if you're here after 8:30," he said.
About half of the 130,000 regular Downtown commuters drive to work.
He said free rides also might stimulate development of office space on the North Shore.
"For us, a free ride from Downtown to the North Shore will effectively expand the boundaries of Downtown."
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland called the agreement "a win-win, offering both cost savings to the participating agencies and a host of benefits to Port Authority riders and the community as a whole. Free T rides between North Side station and Downtown will encourage more people to use public transit, provide a convenient link between these two areas and contribute to the continuing development on the North Shore."
At the current $8 daily rate, the stadium agency's West General Robinson Street Garage, which sits atop the North Side subway station, would have to attract 40 new customers per weekday to cover the agency's share of the subsidy.
The Stadium Authority sees the opening of the station as a boost for the garage, which is now about 68 percent occupied on average.
"We think it makes a lot of sense for people from the north to consider parking at that garage and taking the T into town," Ms. Conturo said.
Providing the free rides will be cheaper and the service more frequent than using shuttle buses, she said. "We think it's a great deal all the way around."
Because of low occupancy, the authority has struggled to make the debt service payments on the facility.
On Tuesday, the Sports & Exhibition Authority board authorized a refinancing that would cut debt payments on the garage by about $500,000 a year.
The refinancing would reduce the interest rate on the garage from a high of 7 percent to about 3.8 percent.
With the savings, the garage would come "close" to breaking even, Ms. Conturo said.
Whether it actually does so could depend on the traffic generated by the new station, she said.
Alco is participating because it sees potential customer growth on its surface lots near the station, Ms. Conturo said.
The $523.4 million North Shore Connector project extends the Light Rail Transit system by 1.2 miles from a new station in Gateway Center to new stations at PNC Park and Heinz Field.
Test trains are expected to start operating this month and passenger service is scheduled to debut in late March.
For now, the agreement covers only rides to the North Side station, not to the Allegheny station next to Heinz Field.
Allegheny County executive-elect Rich Fitzgerald issued a statement today hailing the agreement as "great news for residents, commuters and visitors to our county, as well as for the Stadium Authority and Port Authority."
"Providing a free fare from the North Shore to Downtown helps promote the continuing boom in North Shore development that we're seeing. It's tourist-friendly and can help boost restaurant and retail business too. I am hopeful that this agreement will result in the Port Authority seeing additional riders. It may even attract new groups of riders. Certainly, this arrangement makes the trip easier for commuters and reduces congestion in downtown too," he said.
Mr. Waldrup and Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo said their organizations still are pushing hard for sponsorships that would extend the free-fare zone on the rail system to Station Square and Heinz Field.
The Downtown Partnership has hired consultants who are contacting businesses and other potential sponsors. They are asking them to consider buying naming rights to any of the seven stations or pay to attach their name to the free-fare zone.
"We are having conversations daily with folks. We're hoping [the deal with the Stadium Authority] will open up the gates and other people will hop on," Mr. Waldrup said.
First Published December 21, 2011 12:00 am