When Port Authority announced at its March board meeting that it had reached a $1.2 million deal to keep the T’s North Side station free of charge, it came with a glaring omission.
There was no announcement of a deal to keep fares free at Allegheny Station — the final stop on the North Shore Connector — which have been underwritten for the past three years by the Steelers and Rivers Casino.
The notable absence of a deal with Rivers and the Steelers hasn’t generated much outcry, partly because fares have remained free, and top Allegheny County and PAT officials have maintained their optimism that a new deal will be struck.
But weeks after the Allegheny Station contract expired, and with no new deal in sight, transit advocates and experts are wondering whether the Steelers and Rivers will become the ultimate free riders: benefiting from a service that brings paying customers to their front doors free of charge, and which accommodates thousands of extra riders during special events — all without paying PAT a penny in return.
“The Pirates and Steelers games could not happen the way they do without public transit,” says Molly Nichols, who heads the advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit. “It’s an unfair burden to say Port Authority should eat the cost of that free fare.”
Others say it’s a matter of business. “There may well be a price tag that has gotten beyond their interest,” says Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. “It’s easy to say somebody has an obligation, but at what price?”
But have the Steelers and Rivers pulled out because of an unreasonable price tag? Or have they simply realized they might be able to take advantage of the free-fare zone without contributing to it?
Either way, says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, “We might get to the point where we can’t do a free-fare zone anymore. Free isn’t free.”
When the North Shore Connector opened in March 2012, it was widely considered a $523 million "boondoggle," as current PAT CEO Ellen McLean recently put it.
The 1.2-mile extension under the Allegheny River, connecting the T to the North Side, was the remnant of a transit vision once filled with optimism and grandeur. As recently as the mid-1990s, the transit agency had considered building the ill-fated "Spine Line" — a light-rail system that would have connected Oakland to Downtown and the North Side.
A Republican-led coalition in county government effectively killed the plan — and the resulting North Shore Connector ended up being "the least-worst alignment," says Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. "And that ended up going to the stadiums."
With lobbying from groups like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and with Fitzgerald chipping in political muscle to negotiate with the Steelers and casino, the idea was born to continue the Downtown free-fare zone to the North Side.
PDP "saw this as an opportunity to expand the borders of Downtown," PAT spokesman Jim Ritchie says. Officials also hoped it would help ease traffic Downtown and on the North Side by encouraging people to park and ride the T — all while spurring development.
The original deal was structured so that each of the two North Shore Connector stations would have sponsors for making fares at those stations free. The Stadium Authority and Alco Parking would pay $495,000 over three years to keep North Side station free. The Steelers and Rivers Casino split $615,000 over three years to keep Allegheny Station free.
Alco and the Stadium Authority agreed to a new deal that took effect last month and is worth $1.2 million over five years to keep North Side station free. That's a roughly 41 percent increase in payments over their original contract — perhaps an indication of the free-fare zone's increasing value.
But there was a crucial difference in the deal with the Steelers and Rivers — something that the transit agency says has essentially derailed negotiations. According to the original agreement, $40,000 of their annual payments guaranteed exclusive advertising rights at Allegheny Station, along with the promise that PAT would not sell the naming rights to the station. Advertising and naming rights were never part of the North Side station deal with Alco and the Stadium Authority.
Today, advertising in Allegheny Station is worth at least $100,000 to $150,000 per year, Ritchie says, well above the $40,000 the casino and Steelers split annually. Naming rights are likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more. PAT realized the value of the advertising space and went to the Steelers and casino with an offer to continue sponsoring free fares with payment increases similar to those secured with Alco and the Stadium Authority — only without ad rights, Ritchie says.
That proposal was rejected and the transit agency made another offer that was similar, Ritchie says, to the original deal, but without ad rights. Still, the Steelers and casino balked.
That position from the Steelers drew criticism from transit advocates like the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group's Sandvig.
"You are a $1 billion-plus franchise, one of the most successful in professional sports ... why wouldn't you do it?" Sandvig asks.
It also makes good business sense, Sandvig adds, "because it makes getting to your venue easier and cheaper for those who will be using it."
The Steelers declined to comment for this story. Through a spokeswoman, Rivers Casino General Manager Craig Clark wrote, "Rivers Casino has been proud to support the T free-fare zone, which is a great convenience for guests visiting the North Shore. We have made a proposal to [Port Authority] to renew our sponsorship." The casino would not elaborate.
At first blush, the case that North Side behemoths like the casino and Steelers should pay something for free transit seems easy to make.
The Steelers, for instance, are the beneficiaries of considerable public support: About two-thirds of their $261 million stadium came from public money, according to Stadium Authority executive director Mary Conturo. And they were given, along with the Pirates, development rights to the land between Heinz Field and PNC Park.
It's the least they can do, argue groups like Pittsburghers for Public Transit, to give back in a way that ultimately benefits them anyway. And aside from subsidizing free fares, Nichols says, "PAT offers more service to these institutions when they have games," a cost that the transit agency absorbs.
But Nichols and other transit supporters acknowledge complicating factors.
For starters, PAT never structured the contracts to collect money to offset the cost of beefing up service during special events, including extra personnel and maintenance costs. (PAT does not track how much the extra service costs.) "All we ever tried to do is recover the fare we're not collecting," Ritchie explains.
Not everyone has contributed equally, even among the city's sports franchises that directly benefit. The Pirates, for instance, have never supported the free-fare zone despite being approached by PAT. The team did not return requests for comment.
It's also tricky to assess the fairness of the dollar amount PAT is asking for. The agency doesn't track the number of people who ride the North Shore Connector (though about 6,000 people use Allegheny Station on an average weekday, according to agency estimates). So how exactly is the value of a station's-worth of free fares being calculated?
The answer isn't based completely on hard data. "We ... made agreements based on willingness to pay and value of the service we provided, and that's the dollar amount," says PAT CEO McLean.
That argument convinced the Stadium Authority and Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking, both of whom were willing to increase their payments to keep the North Side station free.
Stabile, who has sold about 1,000 more of his roughly 6,000 parking spaces each day since the connector opened, says, "PAT has been more than reasonable" in asking for more money based on increased costs and higher-than-expected ridership.
"The value to the Pirates and Steelers is there. There's no reason they shouldn't be in support of it in every way possible," Stabile says.
Part of the problem's complexity, Ritchie acknowledges, is that the current model relies on sponsors who directly benefit from free fares at nearby stations. Instead, the agency could seek sponsors for the naming rights to the free-fare zone itself.
So what happens if PAT starts charging at Allegheny Station?
For one, PCRG's Sandvig argues, it could lead to extra cars on the road and less-productive use of land if, instead of taking the T, people insist on parking Downtown for work and on the North Side for special events.
It would also affect roughly 13,739 Community College of Allegheny County students, a quarter of whom use public transit to get to the Allegheny Campus on the North Side, writes CCAC spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnston.
Though the school does not track how many students ride the T, she calls the free fares a "financial lifeline" for students. "Subsidized transportation has been extremely helpful in enabling them to get to their classes, clinical sites and places of employment," she writes.
But bottom lines aside, if organizations like the Steelers stop subsidizing free service, will it have any effect on the public's perception of them?
"It probably depends on who you ask," Sandvig says. "If you're a suburbanite and not from the South Hills, it probably won't matter. If you're a city resident and you already think the Steelers get enough as it is, you'll probably be upset.
"Will you stop watching football? Probably not."