PAT faces tough decision on Wabash Tunnel
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One way or another, the Port Authority would have to cough up an 80 percent federal share of money spent on the Wabash Tunnel if it elects to close the facility or turn it over to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.Map: Wabash Tunnel location
The Federal Transit Administration has ruled the money -- at least $20 million after depreciation -- must be reimbursed or applied as part of the federal share of funding for another capital improvement project.
In either case, the authority does not have that kind of money, Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland said.
The ruling was outlined in a letter from FTA Regional Administrator Susan Borinsky in response to an authority board request to have the staff come up with a "definitive exit strategy" to rid the agency of responsibility for the under-used facility intended primarily for high occupancy vehicles such as car or van pools.
"The FTA's response was we understand. That's your prerogative. But you still owe us 80 percent," Mr. Bland said in a meeting with the Post-Gazette editorial board.
The board expressed concern in October about low overall traffic, the fact that no authority buses use the Wabash Tunnel for regular service and the impact on an operating budget that anticipates an $80 million deficit for the 2007-08 fiscal year.
Starting Saturday, the authority is to pay $575,000 a year out of the operating budget to a private contractor to supervise and maintain the Wabash Tunnel.
Over the years, the authority has poured about $50 million into the 103-year-old former railroad tunnel between Route 51 and West Carson Street, including property acquisition, studies, engineering, construction and reconstruction.
"The general rule is if a facility is removed from transit use before the end of its useful life, FTA is reimbursed its proportionate share (usually 80 percent) of the remaining value, based on the straight line depreciation method," Ms. Borinsky wrote. "Since this is an open grant, the reimbursement could be added back to the grant to be used for an eligible activity."
Because of depreciation over the years, the authority's 80 percent share likely would cost around $20 million if it decides to close the tunnel or turn it over to PennDOT, which would have to consent to such a move.
Ms. Borinsky wrote:
"We understand the board's concern that the facility be used to its fullest extent and certainly would not object to exploring alternative uses of it, but are hopeful that continued mass transit usage will be included among the alternatives you explore since the facility has so recently been opened."
The Wabash Tunnel has been controversial since the authority acquired it in the late 1960s and remodeled it for a proposed rubber-tire Skybus transit system that was never built.
It instead was renovated and opened as an HOV portal more than two years ago. An April 2006 survey by The Post-Gazette counted 123 HOVs using the tunnel between 6 and 10 a.m., when it's open for inbound traffic.
The authority had estimated as many as 2,500 vehicles a day would use the reversible, single-lane tunnel by 2015 because of its proximity to Station Square and the South Side and as an alternative to the Fort Pitt and Liberty tunnels.
Mr. Bland predicted the authority would be in a similar predicament if it were to cancel the $435 million, 1.2-mile light-rail extension to the North Shore, as some critics continue to insist.
"We don't think we'd have to repay [the FTA] for money spent on design, but the first effect would be litigation with the contractor," he said, referring to the initial, $156.5 million construction contract that includes boring twin tunnels under the Allegheny River.
Mr. Bland estimated the contractor could sue and recover "$30 million, at a minimum," for costs incurred and obligated to date.
First Published January 10, 2007 12:00 am