Come clean on North Shore Connector ridership

Come clean on North Shore Connector ridership

So, how many people have been availing themselves of the “free” light-rail system rides between the North Shore and downtown Pittsburgh?

It’s a legitimate question that we’ve been asking for years. And it’s a question that the Port Authority of Allegheny County steadfastly has not answered — because it has said it doesn’t keep count.

We long have found that hard to believe, given it’s a hardly unimportant metric for such a pricey asset. Or, is that “asset” the continuing liability of a half-billion-dollar boondoggle?

Nonetheless, the “we-don’t-count” defense is a great cover story considering riders have had to be bribed to use the North Shore Connector.

The question arises again as the Post-Gazette reports that the mass-transit agency and the public authority that refuses to die – the publicly funded Stadium Authority — have reached a tentative deal to continue the free rides.

But there’s an important caveat to the deal that should, finally, shake loose that ridership number. Well, perhaps. Per the P-G report, the Stadium Authority won’t pay the Port Authority $265,000 for the service until commuting returns to “normal.”

This deal and past deals supposedly bribe, er, encourage people who drive into the city to park at stadium lots and garages by offering them free rides into Downtown, thus reducing traffic in the Golden Triangle, the P-G says.

But who’s to say that, really, considering no numbers ever have been released to back up the contention. Surely, some North Shore parking patrons like to walk across the Allegheny River to their Downtown jobs. Surely others use the parking to reach North Side jobs, etc.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the P-G says North Shore lots and garages that are normally full haven’t been utilized nearly as much.

“As a result, the new agreement doesn’t resume payments until capacity at the lots and garages reaches 90 percent for three consecutive months, and then payments would be prorated on a monthly basis for the remainder of the year.”

If that ever happens remains to be seen considering how commuting and in-office work habits might have just been changed permanently by the pandemic.

And, again, that said, it’s not a given that surface lot and/or parking garage occupancy – at any percent – can be used as any kind of gauge to measure North Shore Connector ridership.

The authority’s finance committee has recommended that the full board approve the new agreement when it meets this week. But part of any new deal should be making a deal with the public to come clean about North Shore Connector ridership – pre-pandemic and for the last year.

After all, the public that keeps paying for this thing, one way or another, has every right to know how big of a boondoggle it continues to be.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).