The North Shore Connector turns 10: a look back and a look ahead

Summary: On March 25, 2012, the Port Authority’s North Shore Connector, the 1.2 mile-extension of the light-rail system under the Allegheny River from Downtown to the North Shore, began service.  Allegheny Institute research analyzed the construction, escalating estimates and questionable benefits of the connector. 

The connector’s history

“There [are] very serious questions about the North Shore Connector: Can we afford this project? Where are the estimates of economic benefits to justify such outlandish expenditures? Surely we cannot afford to waste valuable resources when the region’s other transportation needs are much more pressing.”  Allegheny Institute Policy Brief Vol. 1, No. 16

That 2001 Brief raised questions that persist to this day. As documented in subsequent Briefs, the connector’s cost grew from $363 million (June 2005) to $393 million (August 2005) to $435 million (July 2006, the amount at which the project received a full-funding grant agreement from the federal government) to $553 million (January 2009) before finally settling at $517 million when it opened for service.  And that’s after lopping off the “spine line” to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, perhaps the only justifiable part of the project.

The connector received 80 percent of its funding from the federal government, and there was a strong “use-it-or-lose-it” rationale locally when the connector proceeded in the face of the escalating estimates. 

A 2016 Federal Transit Administration (FTA) “Before-and-After Study” on the connector stated “under-estimates of project costs were a persistent problem throughout the development of the North Shore Connector.” The study chronicled how components of the connector were dropped at various stages; that 0.3 mile leg to the convention center, a third station on the North Shore and additional light-rail vehicles. The convention center leg was where much of the population and, thus, projected ridership, was to be drawn. Its elimination affected the “ridership numbers and the attractiveness of the project” according to Policy Brief Vol. 6, No. 7.

Arguments for the connector made by proponents included serving workers commuting to the North Shore; improving linkages to recreational, cultural and civic facilities; spurring development on the North Shore and providing the jumping off point for light rail extensions to other parts of the county. 

As Institute research pointed out, the cost per rider for the first 20 years of operations, taking into account operating and capital costs, was an estimated $15 to $20. The connector gained national attention in 2010 as it was highlighted by two U.S. senators as the third-most-offensive use of federal stimulus spending.

Not long before opening it was announced that the Port Authority had secured agreements with four sponsors to provide free rides to and from the two new stations on the North Shore to the four stations Downtown.  Officials touted the possibility that naming rights for the stations might be sold. As of today, an agreement to continue free rides from one station through March 2024 has been proposed; the station names are unchanged.

In Policy Brief Vol. 12, No. 17 indicators in the fiscal year preceding the connector’s opening (July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011) were 6.9 million unlinked light-rail trips and light-rail operating expenses of $48.1 million, resulting in an operating expense per unlinked trip of $6.96. In addition, there were 141,356 light rail vehicle revenue hours driven that year, resulting in an operating expense per hour of $340.58.

Performance after the connector’s opening

In the first full fiscal year following the opening of the connector (FY2012-13), operating expenses fell, unlinked trips and vehicle hours rose.  As a result, the operating expense per trip and per hour fell from FY2011-12 to their lowest point. 

In the years after FY2012-13, operating expenses rose each year.  Unlinked trips rose twice, vehicle hours did so four times. If all trips above the 6.9 million in FY2010-11 are attributed to the connector, FY2015-16 would be the year in which there was the biggest net gain, 1.2 million trips. In the last year pre-COVID, the number of unlinked light-rail trips were around 245,000 greater than before the connector opened. Operating expense per unlinked trip rose each year and was an astounding $12.48 in FY2019-20.  So, too, did operating expense per hour, reaching $468.39 in that same fiscal year.

Light-Rail Trips and Expenses, FY2010-11 to FY2019-20

That’s systemwide.  How many light-rail riders are using the connector segment?  The 2016 FTA study stated “actual ridership on the North Shore Connector in March 2016 was 11,100 trips per average weekday.  Of this total, 7,400 were made to jobs, shopping, and other activities in downtown Pittsburgh.” 

The study also stated “another 1,500 trips were made to jobs, education, entertainment, and other activities on the North Shore.  These trips originated throughout areas to the south of the Allegheny River.”  As a share of the 11,100 trips, 64 percent were home to work, 22 percent home to non-work and 14 percent non-home to non-home.  Based on that data, 67 percent of the trips were within the “free fare zone.” 

To date, neither the FTA nor the Port Authority has replicated the connector ridership survey.  There is plenty of data for years 2017 through 2020 on the Port Authority’s website on ridership (referred to as “ons” and “offs”) at the two stations added on the North Shore, but not where those trips originated or ended.  Is ridership to Downtown still around 67 percent as it was in March 2016?  What about weekend rides? And how would ridership be affected if a fare were eventually added and what would that do for the authority’s finances?

As a way of producing an estimate based on reasonable assumptions, Port Authority audits contain data on free ridership for light-rail, which in FY2018-19 was 2,014,557 trips.  Assuming that all of those trips averaged one mile in length, and almost all took place between one of the stations on the North Side and one in Downtown, using the FY2018-19 operating expense per passenger mile for Port Authority light rail of $2.46 from the National Transit Database, the cost of providing free rides would be close to $5 million.  That represents 7 percent of light rail operating expenses that year. This cost has been minimally offset by the sponsorships. The rides are free to the rider, but taxpayers are paying for the labor, maintenance, utilities, etc. associated with the free trips.

Looking forward

The FTA study concluded with the statement that “Port Authority predicted that 14,300 trips would use the North Shore Connector in 2025.”  This forecast depended on various factors: the continuation of the “free fare zone”; the downtown economy; North Shore development; funding to maintain service; gas prices and other factors.  Can anyone say today that any of these components have a clear future, including the “free fare zone”, especially in light of the effect that COVID had on ridership?  The latest data on average weekday trips for February 2022 show overall light-rail ridership is 79 percent lower than it was in February 2019.

In 2010, the engineer in charge of the connector’s construction said “our hope is that 20, 30 years down the road people will say ‘I don’t know what the controversy was about.’” Twelve years after the engineer’s comment, have people forgotten about what went into the expensive project?  Will they forget about the connector cost overruns? It is doubtful that in 2012 many knew there would be a bus rapid-transit project underway across the river. That project has one-half the price tag of the connector with 44 percent of the funding put up by the federal government. What could be in store during the next 10 years?

The North Shore Connector turns 10

In 2010, the engineer in charge of the North Shore Connector’s construction—the 1.2 mile extension of the Port Authority’s light rail system from Downtown Pittsburgh under the Allegheny River to the North Shore—said “our hope is that 20, 30 years down the road people will say ‘I don’t know what the controversy was about.’”

Friday marks 10 years since the connector opened to the public.  Is the controversy starting to wear off? No doubt boosters who pushed hard for the project, even in light of escalating costs, dubious benefits, elimination of parts of the project (especially the link to the convention center, which is where much of the economic justification came from) and the connector being called a “tragic mistake” and a bad use of federal stimulus dollars , never saw anything controversial. 

But there were many problems with the connector. Institute research as far back as 2001 questioned the need for the connector and documented the construction as the price tag rose and the arguments for pressing on became more outlandish.  The connector’s cost grew from $363 million to $393 million to $435 million to $553 million before finally settling at $523 million. The federal government put up 80 percent of funding; thus, a “use-it-or-lose-it” sentiment was very strong. 

When it opened, riders who traveled from the North Shore to points in Downtown and back would not pay a fare due to the expansion of the existing “free fare zone” and agreements with four sponsors.  One agreement expired in 2015, the other was renewed through the end of this month.  But no official action has been taken by the Port Authority board to extend it.   Does that mean fares will be charged for under-the-river trips as they are from Downtown to Station Square?  Or will authority revenues from riders and taxpayers continue to provide free rides? 

And just how many trips are taking place on the connector?  To date, the most detailed study was contained in the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Before and After Study published in 2016.  “Actual ridership on the North Shore Connector in March 2016 was 11,100 trips per average weekday.  Of this total, 7,400 were made to jobs, shopping, and other activities in downtown Pittsburgh … another 1,500 trips were made to jobs, education, entertainment, and other activities on the North Shore.  These trips originated throughout areas to the south of the Allegheny River,” according to the study. As a share of the 11,100 trips, 64 percent were home to work, 22 percent home to non-work and 14 percent non-home to non-home. 

From that data the share of weekday trips occurring within the “free fare zone” was 67 percent and most likely for those parking on the North Shore and riding for free to a job Downtown.

That level of detail has not been replicated.  The FTA likely won’t revisit the project.  The Port Authority was supposed to do a ridership survey but it was delayed due to COVID.  The authority’s website does provide data on what it terms “ons” and “offs” at all light-rail stops, including the two stations built as part of the Connector. Those are estimates based on employee counts taken at stations. 

For the light rail system as a whole, the number of unlinked trips increased after the connector opened but then began to fall.  However, light-rail operating expenses climbed yearly and, as a result, operating expense per unlinked trip did as well. In FY2010-11, before the connector began service, there were 6.9 million unlinked light-rail trips and $48.1 million in operating expenses for a per trip expense of $6.96.  Trips rose and remained in the range of 7.1 million to 8.1 million through FY2018-19.  But expenses rose annually to reach $71 million in that fiscal year.  The operating expense per trip was $9.93 pre-COVID. 

Where the system goes from here is anyone’s guess.  The Port Authority is embarking on a bus rapid transit project in Uptown but has ambitions for a light rail extension.  The just-released bus and light-rail weekday ridership numbers for February show average weekday ridership is down 50 percent and 79 percent on those modes, respectively.  Is this the time to be thinking about expansion? Will future projects make the connector look small in comparison?

Come on and Take Free Ride

It seems the County Executive is a great fan of the Edgar Winter Group’s long ago hit song that invited folks to take a free ride. The difference is that the Executive is the "boss" at the Port Authority and has a taxpayer built light rail system that he can invite people to ride for free.

The Executive and some downtown groups want to see a fare free ride between the North Shore and Station Square. The draw is the free access to the North Shore with the stadiums, parking and entertainment as the attractions for T riders.

There is so much wrong with this idea. First of all, when the Federal and state governments put up hundreds of millions to support construction of rail systems and then pour in more hundreds of millions to subsidize ridership, they do not intend that rides be free. Free rides can and almost certainly will lead to artificially induced overuse of the system that will entail requiring adding trains to handle the free riders. More trains, more driver time, more costs for vehicle and track maintenance, security, more management time for scheduling etc. In this regard, the amount of money the Executive has requested from businesses to cover the cost of the free rides is a pittance compared to the cost of providing the North Shore service.

As was observed soon after the opening of the North Shore Connector, free rides after large events result in long lines and very long wait times. The problem for the Port Authority is that it can carry only a few thousand (perhaps as few as five thousand) people per hour safely. If 20,000 people show up at the North Shore stations after an event expecting a ride, they are going to create a massive logjam. The system is not designed to handle that kind of crush.

Far better to stop the free ride regime now. If someone rides the North Shore Connector they should pay at least a nominal fare. The subsidy per rider from construction costs is already at least $20. Given there is little chance the Connector will ever pay for its construction costs, the Port Authority ought at a minimum try to recover the operating costs of the system.

If the Connector cannot cover its operating costs through fares, then the massive expenditures to build it were even more of a boondoggle than opponents argued it would be before it was built.

Looking at Light Rail Numbers

An article over the weekend about the possible extension of light rail in the future noted that the number of annual trips on the light rail system stood at 7.7 million in 2012, which is an increase of 15% over 2011 totals (6.7 million according to APTA data). At 7.7 million, 2012 ridership would be the highest light rail total back to 1996 (as far as APTA data goes back) besting the previous high during that time frame (7.5 million in 1997).

Of course, we don’t know how much the extension of "free" rides between the North Shore Connector stations and Downtown have boosted totals or the newness of the Connector itself had an effect. APTA does not provide a breakout of the light rail mode’s expenses, revenue, or employees as does the PAT budget: we noted last year the baseline data. There is not yet a modal comparison available for the 12-13 fiscal year nor the 13-14 fiscal year for the Authority. We did calculate the "expense per rider" by dividing total expenses of the light rail system by ridership at $7.08 in 2011. With the boost in ridership in 2012 to 7.7 million if the cost per rider was to stay roughly the same the Authority’s light rail expenses could have risen to no more than $54.8 million.

The APTA data does however separate by quarter; the biggest boost over 2011 ridership came in the second quarter (April, May, and June) when there were 2.0 million unlinked trips. The previous year there were 1.67 million in that quarter.

PAT Light Rail: Pre-Connector Operating Data

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of light rail to the North Shore, the debate over whether it was wise to spend and shift Federal, state, and local money to the project now moves to what impacts it will have on the light rail system as a whole. 


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A Snapshot of PAT Data as the Connector Begins Service

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of the trolley line to the North Shore, and until there is the extension of the project to the airport or the North Hills as boosters of the project have used as justification, it is important to take a snapshot of light rail operations as they are in order to establish baseline for comparison to future operating data.

This year’s Port Authority budget (2011-12) put in some growth in rail ridership (less than 1%) and expenses (5.2%) due to the opening of the Connector. But actual and audited numbers for PAT’s light rail system (in the 2010-11 fiscal year) without the Connector’s impact shows the following:

  • Total Rail Ridership: 6,918,000
  • Total Passenger Revenue: $9,811,000
  • Total Other Revenue: $295,000
  • Total Expense: $49,038,000
  • Total Rail Employees: 468
  • Total Length of system: 48.9 miles
  • Total Rail Vehicles: 83

The critical measure we can glean from this data is "total expense per rider" which stands at $7.08. Of course, this does not take into account the capital expense for the existing rail system which would boost the expense per rider significantly higher. But as the Connector leg gets up and operating and ridership numbers come in it will be easy to see from PAT’s numbers what happens to the total expense per rider. Based on FY11 numbers, a light rail trip was about $1.50 more than a PAT bus trip.

More than 80% of the total expense for light rail is accounted for by salaries and benefits, leaving $9 million or so to be spread between materials, utilities, provisions for injuries and damages, purchased services, and other. Passenger revenue ($9.8 million) covers about 20% of total expense. Recall that until 2015 corporate sponsorships are underwriting free trips between Downtown and the North Shore stations (and vice versa) so "other" revenue on the light rail system may rise slightly relative to passenger revenue.

Connector a Success if No One Uses It? A Preposterous Argument

In a comment dripping with ex post rationalization, the Port Authority’s Executive Director says the Connector will be a success even if no one uses it. The Director claims, in effect, that the prodigious engineering feat of building the Connector justifies the costs. And concludes the amazing rationalization by saying we have built the project and it is up to the region to use it.

This is how spending nearly $520 million and creating untold burdens on businesses and travelers through the City is to be justified?

How can a half billion dollar, multi year project get built with no firm expectation or forecast of how may users it will have when completed and into the future? This is ridiculousness in the extreme. There were forecasts of ridership when the project was submitted to the Federal Government for funding. Why are those no longer valid? In a word, because they were not credible then and certainly not now in light of the elimination of the Steel Plaza station to the Convention Center leg of the project.

To have spent so much money, time and effort on the Connector and now all they can say in justification is "we hope it works" beggars description.

Easy Come, Easy Go

Last week we learned that the Rivers Casino and the Steelers had agreed to ante up $200,000 to cover free rides for North Shore Connector passengers. That brought the total of such payment agreements to $360,000 when combined with the Alco Parking and Stadium Authority contract reached earlier.

Well as the saying has it; easy come, easy go. On Friday last week Judge McVerry ordered the Port Authority to pay the ACLU and a group advocating felons’ right to vote $340,000 for PAT’s refusal to allow the group’s ads to be displayed on PAT buses. We have yet to learn how much legal expense PAT has paid out fighting the case or how much more will be required if they opt to appeal the Judge’s decision.

One could argue that PAT is better off by virtue of reaching the agreements for the $360,000 in free ride payments since it was almost certain to lose the lawsuit. But, it still begs the question: Why does PAT expect so few passengers who would be willing to pay that they would settle for $360,000? That certainly does not gibe with the optimism about the ridership included in the application for Federal funding. However, it is unlikely any of the most vocal proponents will be stepping forward with an explanation of why they were so wrong.

Oh Joy, Free T Rides on the North Shore Connector

With agreement reached between the Port Authority (PAT) and the Steelers and Rivers Casino to provide free light rail service from the North Shore to Downtown in exchange for the payment of $200,000 this year, $205,000 next year and $210,000 the year after that, all rides between North Shore stops and center city will be free.


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