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?