Make North Shore Connector users pay

Make North Shore Connector users pay

Word that even more federal taxpayer dollars will be used to subsidize “free” rides on the Port Authority’s North Shore Connector should be prompting outrage among the tax-paying populace.

That it likely won’t represents the kind of public policy apathy that only costs the public more and more. That said, it’s also the perfect opportunity for an authority that says it’s attempting to diversify its funding sources to start charging riders for using the connector.

The mass-transit agency’s full board this week is expected to approve a two-year extension of a deal with the Stadium Authority to provide those free rides at a “cost” of $265,000.

Never mind that the true yearly cost of such free rides to patrons is, based on fiscal year 2018-19 data, estimated to be close to $5 million (Allegheny Institute Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 14).

And, more importantly, also never mind that, based on the Stadium Authority’s extended deal with the Port Authority, the former likely won’t pay a cent of the new agreement.

As the Post-Gazette reported:

“(T)he Stadium Authority only has to pay if the parking lots and garages on the North Shore reach 85 percent capacity for three consecutive months the first year and 80 percent for three months the second year, which hasn’t happened often since the pandemic reduced driving beginning in March 2020.”

Of course, lost in this mess, too, is that such deals, when thresholds are met, results in one quasi-government agency paying another quasi-government agency with public money.

The Port Authority’s chief legal officer, Mike Cetra, tells the P-G that neither did the Stadium Authority pay anything toward the free rides in a one-year agreement that ended on April 1, “when the threshold for parking was 90 percent occupancy.”

North Shore parking capacity stood at 30 percent in February, he said.

The Port Authority “used federal stimulus funds to pay for the rides, which encourage Downtown workers to park on the North Shore and take the subway into the Golden Triangle,” the P-G says, noting it likely will use more federal stimulus dollars to cover the shortfall.

So, again, why not use this opportunity to make the North Shore Connector pay more for itself through instituting a fare between downtown Pittsburgh and the near North Shore?

The authority likely will argue that fare collection is impractical. That’s because Downtown subway riders, especially during the evening rush hour, sometimes use the inbound trains to loop around through the North Shore to go outbound to avoid (at least in regular times) crowded trains.

Indeed, it would be difficult to capture those riders.

But it seems that there’s no reason whatsoever that connector rides originating at the North Shore’s two light-rail stations could not be charged a round-fare for that leg of the trip and the return that surely would be used to get to one’s vehicle.

Port Authority ridership remains markedly down from pre-pandemic days. And, given the changes the pandemic wrought to the “traditional” office work habits place, it might never recover.

But if the authority implements a connector fare, and fewer than the few now using the leg don’t bother, it will be a good indicator that “free” rides were offered at the outset of the North Shore Connector’s debut a decade ago because the project was the boondoggle that we and so many others said it was.

And no repeated government interventions can change that fact.

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