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.