Riding the new North Shore Connector need not be a downer
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Pretend Pittsburgh is not a metropolitan area until it goes away.
I've long wondered whether that is a good long-term strategy. It often seems to be the plan. What other city could build a $500 million subway expansion and then, when ridership immediately booms beyond what anyone dared hope, leave everyone waiting for trains that never come?
Most places need outside saboteurs to pull that off, but the Port Authority managed this in-house.
Hence the Friday morning press conference in the new Gateway T station that no executive ever wants to give, the ol' "this is inexcusable and cannot happen again/I extend a very sincere apology'' two-step.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had already taken Port Authority CEO Steve Bland to the woodshed for the underground debacle that occurred a week ago Saturday. Pirates fans and Marilyn Manson fans pouring from PNC Park and Stage AE had crowded the T station platform betwixt the stadiums, secure in the knowledge they'd have a free ride to their cars Downtown or a cheap ride to the South Hills.
Instead, many were left stranded when trains never arrived.
You've really screwed up when Marilyn Manson shows more responsibility than you do. Mr. Fitzgerald promised "top to bottom changes'' at the transit authority if this massive failure were anything but a one-time freak show. By Friday, he was expressing confidence it wouldn't recur.
The snafu was part of the complete reversal of the conventional thinking only two months ago, when many still called the North Shore Connector a "Tunnel To Nowhere.'' The daily demand for rides is literally through the roof. (Commuters were parking on the roof of the 10-level, 1,256-space garage above the North Side Station again Friday morning, which has been the norm since the subway opened March 25.)
Almost anywhere one parks Downtown is within a five-minute walk of one of four T stations, and every commuter who can add has calculated that $6 parking on the North Shore + 0 for a free subway ride = way better deal than parking Downtown.
The reverse is true for sports fans, who can save money by parking Downtown in the evening and taking a free subway to the game and back. That is if it shows up.
Mr. Bland said the problems last weekend were due to a manpower shortage. Extra trains were ready to go, but only one T operator signed up for overtime. That wasn't a union slowdown, he said, but a case of a small number of drivers already having worked a lot of hours as the T worked out its early bugs. Burned-out drivers opted for rest rather than the extra pay.
That problem is "absolutely fixable,'' Mr. Bland said. Two or three bus drivers also certified to operate the T have volunteered to switch jobs, and the authority will hire more people to go through the six weeks of necessary training.
Extra trains were to shuttle between Allegheny Station and Station Square after games this weekend, every eight to 10 minutes until the platform cleared. Every two-car train can carry 340 passengers comfortably (and maybe 500 uncomfortably). The Port Authority figures it can clear a sellout crowd at PNC Park in less than 45 minutes and a Heinz Field crowd in less than 90.
"If you cannot depend on this service,'' Mr. Bland said, "we may as well close the doors.''
Indeed, the infrastructure is there. The demand is there. All that's needed are smarts. The twists to this problem are that all these extra customers do not mean more revenue, and the authority has pledged it won't cut an already strapped system elsewhere to help the T run smoothly.
The subway is free only because the Steelers, Rivers Casino, the Stadium Authority and Alco Parking contributed a total of $360,000 to cover lost fares. Conspicuously absent from contributors are the Pittsburgh Pirates. Neither Mr. Bland nor Mr. Fitzgerald cast blame in that direction, though Mr. Bland allowed he "may be out later with hat in hand'' before businesses helped by the T.
The total contributions for all these free rides don't yet reach the salary of a rookie utility infielder. The Pirates ought to kick in something to help their fans get to and from games. If Pittsburgh can't get this right, we're not really a big city, we just play one on TV.
First Published May 13, 2012 12:00 am