A Port Authority object lesson

A Port Authority object lesson

There’s a mass-transit object lesson out of Seattle that the Port Authority of Allegheny County can ill afford to ignore. That is, if it chooses to ignore another mass-transit object lesson right in its own backyard.

Word out of Seattle is that Mayor Jenny Durkan has ordered a delay of as long as six months on a project expanding the Emerald City’s downtown streetcar system because of multimillion-dollar fail in estimating the cost to run the expanded line.

An internal memo obtained by The Seattle Times revealed that while the Seattle Department of Transportation projected an operating cost of $16 million annually once the system opens in 2020 – think labor costs for operating and maintenance — King County Metro, which will run these new trolleys, says the actual cost will be more like $24 million.

That’s 50 percent higher for a 1.2-mile line that initially was projected to cost $177 million to build but now is – as Gomer Pyle might have said, “Suh-PRIZE, suh-PRIZE!” – expected to cost $200 million (and counting, one can only suppose).

The kicker is that the lower amount was used to secure federal funding for the expansion and to gain Seattle City Council approval.

All this comes after a number of the city council members also questioned what they considered to be overly rosy ridership projections.

Of course, this all brings back to mind the Port Authority’s North Shore Connector, that light-rail line built from the Golden Triangle and underneath the Allegheny River to serve North Shore destinations.

You may recall that project came in wildly over budget and severely truncated. Do remember, the original project also was to have a “spine line” to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

As one commentator at the time noted, it was more than intellectually dishonest to claim the connector came in on or close to budget when a critical part of the project was lopped off – without a commensurate cost drop.

All of this brings to mind the Port Authority’s latest mass-transit project – the Bus Rapid Transit Project, or BRT, slated to connect downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland using the reconfigured Forbes and Fifth avenues corridor.

One lane would be reserved for electric buses with a lane each for bicycles and vehicular traffic, the Post-Gazette reported.

The $195.5 million project — of which local officials hope $97.8 million would be covered by federal tax dollars –is deemed as critical for better connecting the two business, retail and academic centers and reducing travel times.

Which, given these lane configurations, poses an interesting question: Will the effort enhance travel times or impede them?

As an astute P-G letter writer noted last week, existing transit times already are between 8 and 12 minutes between Oakland and Downtown. And as noted another writer last month:

“If the BRT plan goes ahead, we need feedback to hold the Port Authority accountable for how many people are using it to travel only between Downtown and Oakland.”

Which, apparently, still never has happened with the North Shore Connector.

And one can only wonder if it would happen with a 20-mile light-rail line to Pittsburgh International Airport, which once again is being discussed publicly (though an authority spokesman says “it’s not something we are actively working on”).

Indeed, the Port Authority can learn much from the unfolding mass-transit mess in Seattle. But it also should be able to learn much from its own messy history.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).