South Hills Transit Project Any Closer?

Nearly six years ago the borough manager of Castle Shannon stated "it appears the developer [of a proposed transit village at the Shannon trolley lot] has finalized both site development and financing structure". Three years after that the former Governor of Pennsylvania released $4 million in redevelopment funds to the project. And this week Allegheny County Council expects to act on a resolution to join the borough and Keystone Oaks School District in a tax increment financing plan that would allow incremental tax revenues to be diverted from the development to pay for up-front financing help.

The project does have staying power. Consider that the adjacent municipality of Mt Lebanon flirted with TIF plans for both the Galleria Mall at for a site on Washington Road that would have been a mixed use development.

According to the resolution’s language the site is expected to include "construction and lease of residential apartments, commercial space, and community parking of the [trolley station]". The resolution is non-binding and only authorizes an appointee of the County to work in conjunction with representatives of the other two taxing bodies on the TIF plan.

The benefits are enumerated as such: stimulation of private investment, increases in property values, creation of employment opportunities, and improvement of surrounding properties. Of course, for the County and the other taxing bodies they are hoping that these benefits are in addition to what is already there and don’t result from activity shifting around or to the detriment of existing activity.

Free Trolley Rides? More Expensive Than You Might Think

As the North Shore Connector moves closer to completion and light rail cars are set to make their maiden voyage under the Allegheny River in March of 2012, Downtown boosters are angling to make the area around the Golden Triangle-from Station Square to the North Shore-a free travel zone with trolleys running with much greater frequency. A consultant who studied the idea produced a figure of $1.5 million in additional costs should the recommendation be implemented.

It is unclear how that number was derived since the frequency of operation and fare amount have yet to be determined officially by Port Authority officials. For close to a year there have been inklings that the Port Authority would be receptive to the plan if private/foundation support could be found in the form of station or zone naming rights and sponsorships.

According to the National Transit Database, PAT’s light rail operating expenses in 2009 were $51 million while fare revenues on light rail were $7.8 million, and the number of unlinked trips was 7.3 million. Thus, the subsidy required to cover operating expense per unlinked trip on PAT’s light rail system was $6.01. And this does not include the very large capital expense of the light rail system!

Leaving logistics of trolley operations and station arrival intervals aside for the moment, we have to question whether it is good policy for a transit agency in severe financial straits to be providing free service. Clearly, running the trolleys with much greater frequency in the Downtown area will substantially increase operating costs, and not collecting fare revenue means the agency is leaving money on the table. It is doubtful that sponsorship or naming rights will recover the combined costs that could run into several millions of dollars each year.