Lost Tracks | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lost Tracks

The planned T extension to the North Shore is the last surviving remnant of bigger, better plans

For years, Pittsburghers have derided the North Shore Connector "T" extension as The Little Engine That Shouldn't.

The engine that shouldn't just connect Downtown with the city's two new stadiums. That shouldn't cross the Allegheny River by tunneling beneath it. That shouldn't be built at all.

The proposed Connector would join the T -- the 25-mile light-rail system mostly serving the South Hills -- at the Gateway Center station near the Point. From Gateway, the Connector will descend into Pittsburgh's first-ever underwater tunnel, crossing the Allegheny near Stanwix Street and surfacing beside PNC Park (and a 1,240-space parking garage). It will make a sharp left towards Heinz Field, running just 1.2 miles from Downtown. A second, shorter branch will link the Steel Plaza station on Grant Street with the new Convention Center.

The whole project will travel a mile and a half. At a cost of $393 million.

For all that money, the T extension merely skirts the North Side; it doesn't go into its neighborhoods, such as the East Ohio Street business district or the Mexican War Streets. Instead, it will cater to the stadiums and nearby parking lots, along with anticipated -- but still incipient -- development nearby. Still, the Port Authority hopes that this expansion will lead to others. Someday, planners hope, it will be the first link in a line that will carry riders to the Pittsburgh International Airport and beyond. "You have to start somewhere," Port Authority Engineering-Construction Manager Henry Nutbrown says.

In the meantime, the Authority promises that the North Shore Connector will be more than a shuttle from Downtown to the new stadiums and parking. The Carnegie Science Center is nearby, Nutbrown notes. So are new offices built for Del Monte and Equitable Resources. "So many other entities are counting on this," he says. "They've built their business plans around it."

"In essence, it's nothing more than a mile-long connector from the stadium lots to Downtown Pittsburgh," scoffs Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, formerly a Democratic state senator from Beechview. While his old stomping grounds are among the few city neighborhoods served by the T, "The number-one decision should've been to expand mass transit from Downtown to Oakland," he contends. That's "where the medical community is, the educational community, cultural resources, plus residential communities."

There's nothing new about such visions. Indeed, Pittsburgh once dreamt of a subway-and-rail system equal to those serving Boston, Washington, D.C., or even New York City. Officials expressed sentiments like Wagner's as long ago as the early 1900s, and as recently as the mid-1990s, it was at least plausible that the city might fulfill those hopes by building light rail from Central North Side to Squirrel Hill.

That's the sad irony of the T extension. It's not being built because the city never had a greater transit vision, but because it's the only part of that vision still left. It's the only part to survive years of scheming and failure on the part of Democrats and Republicans, the only part to outlast both dreams of region-wide transit and failed visions of Downtown redevelopment.

And for now, say its backers, we'll be lucky to get it.

It's the tunnel beneath the river that many critics find most upsetting. When asked recently what he'd like to ask the Port Authority's next executive director in a job interview, state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park) asked, "Can we get rid of this tunnel?" State Rep. Don Walko (D-North Side) had the same question.

But the tunnel may be the most old-fashioned part of the whole proposal. The idea of tunneling beneath the Allegheny, Nutbrown says, "actually goes back to 1906. Pittsburgh was much more of a corporate center then, with Gulf Oil, Westinghouse, et cetera." And grandiose dreams were common then, he says, "Maybe because they were doing the subway construction in New York," whose famed subway opened in 1904.

Back then, however, planners sought to join the tunnel to a much larger system, one that would connect the North Side to Oakland and the city as a whole. Reworking concepts first proposed in 1917, city engineers Daniel L. Turner and Winters Haydock offered up their 1925 Report on A Recommended Subway in the First and Second Wards of Pittsburgh, or Proposed First Step in a Rapid Transit Program.

They proposed a rail system beyond the imagination of T riders today. It would have joined East Liberty to the Central North Side, Squirrel Hill to the South Side, Beltzhoover to Perry Hilltop -- and all of them to Downtown. Such a system could have made Pittsburgh the Manhattan of the Alleghenies.

Turner and Haydock's top priority? A route they called the "Fifth Avenue Line" -- a two-track subway line with 17 stops connecting the Central North Side to Downtown, Soho, Oakland, Shadyside and East Liberty.

Future lines could be built later, they noted. But "this line will furnish a rapid transit connecting link between East Liberty, the Oakland center, the Triangle District and the North Side business area." Taken together, the Golden Triangle, the North Side and East Liberty made up the city's largest commercial engine; the planners sought to "weld such separate centers more nearly into a single community."

If money were scarce, the engineers urged, at least go from the North Side to Oakland.

That dream persisted for decades. And the year 1964, when the Port Authority was formed, might've seemed a good time to begin work on it. Instead the transit agency, built from the merger of dozens of struggling private bus and trolley companies, hung its hopes on a scheme that was even more ambitious: Skybus.

Proposed to replace old trolley lines in the South Hills, Skybus was a novel system featuring rubber-tired, driver-less coaches that would run on elevated guideways. Controversial from the start (some objectors preferred rail while others were spooked by buses that drove themselves), arguments grew so feverish that by 1974, funding for Skybus was suspended by the federal government. One year later, the Port Authority decided to give the South Hills light rail instead. The rest of the city -- particularly the East End, home to the region's largest number of transit users -- had to content itself with bus service.

Despite the Skybus fiasco, transit advocates were still thinking big: In 1974, the Southwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission (the area's regional planning board) recommended the East End corridor as ideal for rapid transit. Would light rail finally go to the city's busiest transit neighborhoods?

Then as now, the expense of connecting densely built Downtown, Oakland and the North Side via rail was staggering -- $1.4 billion according to a 1996 estimate, and undoubtedly higher today. But almost as impressive were the estimates of how many passengers such a line could serve. For instance, in 1991, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a rail line serving the Central North Side, Downtown, the Hill, Oakland and Squirrel Hill could carry an estimated 84,500 daily riders, one-third of Port Authority's daily total. Oakland alone could board 54,000 people with just about four miles of track, dwarfing the 34,000 daily passengers then carried on the then 10.5 miles of the South Hills T. (The current North Shore Connector, by comparison is projected to carry only 10,942 passengers per day by 2015, according to Port Authority documents.)

In 1983, the Port Authority began studying a rail line connecting Oakland to Downtown and the North Side. Turner and Haydock's vision seemed reborn: Dubbed the "Spine Line," the new system was envisioned as the backbone of a future rapid-transit system, one which would someday feed into branch lines serving other areas. The main line could also be extended east, to Homestead or Monroeville, or north via the I-279 HOV lane.

Pittsburgh's daily newspapers editorialized in Spine Line's favor. The Pittsburgh Press recalled "dreamers of 1906 and 1919" who'd sought a subway, urging action so we don't have to wait "a generation or three." The Post-Gazette suggested that the Oakland project should've preceded the Skybus idea and the South Hills light rail.

Sadly, however, the proposal would soon die due to a Spineless county government.

In 1995, the Port Authority debuted for the public three possible Spinal alignments from Oakland to Downtown, as well as numerous options for connecting to the North Side. It seemed like promising progress, but in 1996, Spine Line went off the tracks again. This time, its derailment was driven by a government fiasco perhaps even more embarrassing than Skybus: Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer.

For the first time since the Great Depression, two Republicans had been elected to run county government, which was then headed by a panel of three commissioners. Within four months, an overhauled Port Authority board -- all but one of its nine members newly appointed by Dunn and Cranmer -- ordered the transit agency to stop Spine Line planning and take a "fresh look" at transit.

New member Ed Stewart, then mayor of Crafton, led the decision. "I just find it extremely difficult to justify that expenditure from Oakland to Downtown when we have this entire area with needs that aren't being met," he told the Post-Gazette. "I think it's a bad investment. ... [M]y view is we have to look at all of Allegheny County and not just Oakland or Downtown."

The Spine Line was about to lose its backbone.

A mere two months after Ed Stewart demanded transit that would serve more than just Pittsburgh, Cranmer changed his tune: The Hill-Oakland leg was still dead, he told reporters. But an extension to the North Side might be possible after all.

And by 1999, the newly christened "North Shore Connector" would be on the drawing boards, with a planned alignment much like today's. The proposed design bore little resemblance to the ambitious transit plans Pittsburgh once sought.

The connector project didn't just cut out the Hill, Oakland and East Liberty: It cut out most of the North Side, too. While the connector would tunnel beneath an entire river, it would not traverse the highways on the other shore. The North Shore Connector doesn't pass the moat of freeways (I-279, Rt. 65 and Rt. 19) that, residents have long complained, has separated them from Downtown since the 1970s. As a result, unlike earlier proposals, the North Shore Connector won't serve neighborhoods like Manchester, the Mexican War Streets or the Central North Side. (It comes closest to Allegheny West.) It won't deliver visitors to places like the National Aviary, the Children's Museum or Allegheny General Hospital.

"The whole decision to go north in a tunnel was not made by PAT staff, it was made by big shots," says Jonathan Robison, an Oakland-based transit booster and member of the Allegheny County Transit Council. "I wouldn't say it was political -- that insults politics -- but economic big shots, the Allegheny Conference, Steelers, Pirates."

Brian Nogrady, a transit advocate and Port Authority critic who lives in Edgewood, says he can "accept that going under the river makes sense. But why, when you cross the river, do you have to turn left?" -- away from the residential heart of the North Side. "That was never part of the plan before."

How could anyone plan a transit route that burrowed beneath a river but didn't reach out to city neighborhoods just blocks away? The answer is simple: City officials literally pushed those neighborhoods off the map.

After Dunn and Cranmer abruptly dropped Spine Line in 1996, Mayor Tom Murphy picked it up. In fact, the North Shore Connector wasn't initially proposed by the Port Authority at all, as most transit programs are, but by the city government.

As the Port Authority's Nutbrown says approvingly, "The city wouldn't let it die." Instead, it laid out the rationale for the current proposal in a 1997-99 study, and the Port Authority rallied around later.

In the 1990s, Murphy had high hopes for improving Downtown, explains city transportation planner Pat Hassett. The city's North Shore transit plans, he says, were "based on the Downtown plan of that time ... the umbrella study that was driving our attention back then. This was basically a master plan that looked at how Downtown would function in the future."

Most Pittsburghers have probably never seen this master plan, which was developed jointly with the Allegheny Conference. But they'd know it by the frequently controversial Murphy-led projects it spawned. Hassett lists the new stadiums, the new Convention Center, riverfront trails, the now-defunct Lazarus and Lord & Taylor department stores, and the as-yet-unrealized Fifth and Forbes retail redevelopment.

Working from the Downtown Plan, Hassett says, "The North Shore was the next logical step." Planners divvied up the city's core into zones -- the Penn/Liberty corridor encompassing the Cultural Trust, the area surrounding the Convention Center, and the North Shore -- and brainstormed ways to connect them with transit.

The Connector, then, changed from being part of a citywide transit system for residents to becoming a shuttle to aid out-of-towners and suburbanites. The emphasis changed from serving the North Side to the North Shore: that blank slate along the riverside Murphy hoped would house new stadiums and nearby development.

"Improved accessibility would reduce congestion and travel times for event goers attending the major sports and convention venues," the 1997-99 study argued, plus "all of the downtown area and North Side attractions."

Additionally, "These same improvements would also make weekday access into the downtown area more convenient" -- not necessarily for North Siders, who aren't mentioned here, but for those patronizing "North Shore parking facilities and North Shore commercial development projects."

Parking played an important role. The city wanted Downtown's daytime workers to park on the city's outskirts, thus allowing more Downtown real estate to be developed. Meanwhile, on big-game weekends, fans could park in relatively empty Downtown garages, so lots surrounding Three Rivers Stadium could be redeveloped in turn. But nowhere does the study discuss improving transit to serve Jane Lunchbox, Port Authority passholder.

Ironically, the mayor has long been an advocate for the North Side; redeveloping the North Side's Federal North area was another cherished project. But when it came time to push for a T extension there, the study frankly ruled out any proposals that went into deepest North Side. Whatever their merits, these ideas "provided substantial benefit outside the study area." And so for all intents and purposes, they didn't count.

The study, for example, dismissed an old Spine Line proposal that would've gone nearly to Manchester and connected the T with the East Busway. Such a plan might have integrated not just neighborhoods but two of the Port Authority's big-ticket projects. Still, the study found that the project was directed "outside the Core Development area, separated from the North Shore by a set of railroad tracks and an elevated interstate."

Oddly enough, that's just what North Siders complained about in 1997, when they got their first glimpse of the study.

In a letter to Hassett, The Mattress Factory's Sara Radelet emphasized connecting to the Garden Theatre and Federal-North redevelopments, which included 12 properties her institution was renovating.

Extending transit beyond the highways and railroad tracks, she wrote, "will significantly improve the accessibility of Garden Square North, Allegheny General Hospital and the cultural and family attractions" on the North Side.

"The alternatives do not go into the North Side," echoed Colleen Williamson, an Allegheny General Hospital employee. "There are 4,000 to 5,000 people per day at the hospital" -- several times the number of people on the North Shore.

These concerns, of course, did not prevail. "The North Side does have significant uses," read a common bit of boilerplate written response. "But, they are distinct in their access and connectivity needs and solutions. Thus, the North Side warrants separate study."

Once the Port Authority took over the North Shore Connector project in 1999, the current route was chosen by 2000; in 2004, the project was OK'ed by the federal government, its prime funder. North Siders did win promises to spiff up three pedestrian underpasses. It's on this basis that the Port Authority maintains, in its Final Environmental Impact Statement, that "The North Shore Connector would serve North Side neighborhoods."

In fairness, some North Side destinations -- even those beyond the highway underpasses -- are within walking distance from the planned stations.

The Community College of Allegheny County and its nearby apartments are closest. The Allegheny West neighborhood lies within a half-mile walk from the Connector stop near Heinz Field -- still further than the presumably unacceptable distance baseball fans currently have to walk from Downtown. A similar distance separates the station from the southern edge of the Mexican War Streets, the Children's Museum and the National Aviary. About a mile away from the planned PNC Park stop are Allegheny General Hospital, the East Ohio shops, the Mattress Factory and the Penn Brewery.

But the Connector has never been justified based solely on what's there, but on what's to come: a redeveloped North Shore that features retail, housing and offices like the mix at SouthSide Works. So far, Del Monte and Equitable Resources have built new headquarters there, employing about 1,600, and a handful of restaurants and a bank have established themselves. Continental Real Estate, the city's private development partner for the North Shore, has promised several hundred housing units.

Still, these numbers are miniscule compared to Oakland's daytime combined employee, student and residential population of more than 100,000. According to the Oakland Transportation Management Association White Paper, there are some 23,000 transit commuters among that population.

"I understand the conundrum," says Mark Fatla, director of the North-Side based Community Technical Assistance Center. "It's difficult to build transit in residential neigborhoods" because of the costs involved in dislocating residents. "It's easy to build in industrial and highway corridors, but just because it's easy doesn't mean it's right. We ought to be looking at what's the right use of transit, not just the easy way."

Where the Connector is concerned, Fatla has a foot in both camps: He's a North Side resident -- Allegheny West, to be precise -- and a baseball fan. "I've been to 113 professional baseball parks in my life," he says, and "cities serviced by transit do tremendous business. I went to a Nationals game in D.C., and the crush of people going from the ballpark to the Metro was unbelievable."

Walking across the Clemente Bridge from Downtown to the ballpark perhaps shouldn't be too much to ask of a baseball fan, but Fatla suspects it might be. "The way suburbanites live, they won't go to a store unless they can park within sight of it," he diagnoses. "They're not gonna take the T Downtown and cross that bridge."

An additional boon for Allegheny West and nearby neighborhoods, Fatla says, is that getting Steelers fans onto the T might keep them from parking and puking in his neighborhood. "We've always paid the price of 60,000 Steelers fans ... problems like public urination and trash and the like," he says.

Still, he grouses, "God forbid they should actually run transit to where people actually live!"

The Spine Line was controversial, as ambitious projects often are. But this shorter project is controversial as well. Some conservatives, like Richard Mellon Scaife-funded think tank the Allegheny Institute, have attacked the project, especially the tunnel, urging the agency to "Pull the Connector's Plug": "[T]he project was too expensive and not necessary to begin with. ... Scrap this project before any more money is wasted."

But perhaps the most contentious thing about the Connector is that it seems so unambitious. After all, the North Side isn't alone in hoping for something better. A lot of city neighborhoods could think of a better use for $393 million.

  • -- Edgewood's Brian Nogrady has long advocated that the East Busway be converted to light-rail, as the Port Authority once intended. Such a line could later be expanded to McKeesport or Monroeville. In 1998, Port Authority estimated that the cost of converting the busway to light rail from Downtown to Swissvale was about $401 million -- barely more than the cost of the North Shore Connector. Moreover, an East Busway route would travel six times farther and carry more riders.

  • -- Today's head of Allegheny County, County Executive Dan Onorato, says that getting transit to Oakland is his "number-one priority." He suggests extending the T from the current First Avenue station and having it travel along Second Avenue and up Panther Hollow.

  • -- Another option: The Second Avenue line could connect to Panther Hollow and Oakland using a new type of self-propelled passenger car that travels along existing track used by freight railroads. According to Matt Galluzo, development specialist for Hazelwood Main Street, taking advantage of existing rails would almost certainly cost less than putting together properties in a new light-rail corridor.

  • -- Another freight line, the Allegheny Valley Railroad, could also accommodate daytime passengers. It could carry commuters to the Strip all the way from Oakmont, connecting Panther Hollow to Washington Boulevard, Etna and the North Hills via the Route 8 corridor.

  • -- "Bus Rapid Transit" improvements could give Oakland buses a lead in speed with comparatively little money. Oakland's Jonathan Robison and the Allegheny County Transit Council have promoted updates like more buses-only lanes, bus-triggered traffic signals and other tweaks to speed up overstuffed, bogged-down 61 and 71 buses.

Most of these proposals would serve existing populations, especially Oakland -- the state's third-largest employment center -- and Pittsburgh's eastern corridor, where Port Authority data say 40 percent of its trips originate. Unlike Dunn and Cranmer, who said Spine Line was too city-focused, Onorato says, "Oakland-and-Downtown is the region. It's not just a local neighborhood; that's servicing the majority of workers in this region."

Brian Nogrady says the North Shore Connector's amounts to a subsidy for suburbanites. "Private developers and suburban commuters are getting subsidized parking," he says. And costs are being borne by "the North Side and the East End -- predominantly black and mixed-race neighborhoods" where "transit demand is high."

Such projects might be nice, says Port Authority Board Chair John A. Brooks, but Pittsburgh needs to keep its eye on this one. Whatever its limitations, the North Shore Connector is on the verge of actually being built, something you can't say for the other projects.

"It'd be real foolish to drop out of that project. We've already invested $34 million in engineering," Brooks says -- and building it means "5,000 temporary [construction and related] jobs for the next few years." Brooks, not surprisingly, is also head of the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, whose union members can expect to reap some of those jobs.

"Danny's like, 'Can we take this and go to Second Avenue?'" continues Brooks, referring to Onorato's suggestion. "But by the time it bears fruit, it'd be 10 years. The money's there; you can't put it somewhere else without starting over."

That's because switching to a new project would most likely mean starting over with the federal funding process. And the Port Authority's Nutbrown says it would be hard to top the North Shore Connector's success at attracting money: Federal funds typically pay for around 50 percent of transit projects, but the Connector will be 80 percent federal-funded, 3.5 percent coming from Allegheny County and the remainder from state government. Such a sweet deal would not be easy to assemble for another project, he warns.

"They always say they've gone too far to turn back," Nogrady counters. "But just look at Skybus!" When that project came crashing down, it was almost immediately replaced with light rail.

Still, City Planning's Pat Hassett says pining for the Spine Line is "a rosy view. ... You see how much this North Shore Connector costs? You can imagine the cost of Spine Line. ... It probably wouldn't have gone all the way into implementation because of the expense." Accordingly, Hassett says, in the late 1990s the Murphy administration reasoned, "Let's focus our attention to a segment of the Spine Line study that appears to be doable."

Indeed, even the Connector is threatening to balloon beyond its budget. The lowest of three bids for digging the tunnel came in at $87.8 million -- 25 percent higher than what planners had budgeted. Theoretically, this could jeopardize the whole project, because the Federal Transit Administration was withholding their final OK, the so-called "full funding agreement," until tunnel costs became clear. Currently, the Port Authority board is seeking ways to reduce that cost.

But despite such difficulties, even Connector skeptics like Onorato don't want to jeopardize the project or the federal funding. "This was one of five projects picked out of hundreds nationwide," he says. "If we don't do this, I guess number six will get the money."

The Connector, in other words, may be the little transit project that could. Whether it should is almost no longer the point.

In the end, suggests PAT chair Jack Brooks, maybe we should thank God for small favors -- and even short tunnels. It might not be what everybody hoped for, but it's something.

"This will be the last one for 10 years. If this one fails, I don't think I'll see another one in my lifetime."