Wasting Taxpayer Money: Pittsburgh's North Shore Connector

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
North Shore Connector (photo: David Wallechinsky)
There is a lot of talk these days about cutting government spending. In the coming months, AllGov will be calling attention to various projects that are prime candidates for the chopping block. Here is one such project that has gobbled up way too much taxpayer money, but is probably too far along to stop.
The Money Pit
Project: North Shore Connector, a 1.2-mile subway tunnel
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cost: $529 million; 80% financed by U.S. taxpayers
What is It: As early as 1994, Pittsburgh Port Authority officials proposed extending the city’s light-rail system across the Allegheny River to the North Shore, site of the stadiums of the Steelers and the Pirates. In 2000, it was decided to construct a tunnel instead of a bridge. Years of lobbying by city officials, team executives and U.S. Senators Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, among others, convinced the George W. Bush administration to cover 80% of the costs.
Originally the tunnel was estimated to cost $390 million. But inflation in the construction industry, particularly a 70% increase in the cost of steel, caused the price tag to grow out of control. Ground was broken in 2006, but by 2009 the project was so over budget that Port Authority engineers were forced to prepare a plan for closing it down. However, they redid the budget, and the Obama administration stepped in with $62.5 million from the 2009 Recovery Act.
The Sell: An impressive engineering and construction achievement, the tunnel will provide access to the growing economic and cultural area on the North Shore, providing easier access not just to the football and baseball stadiums, but to a science museum, a community college, the Andy Warhol Museum and corporate offices for Del Monte and Equitable Resources. The Connector is now scheduled to open to riders in March 2012.
The Reality: The leading destinations for the North Shore Connector will be Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the recently completed Rivers Casino. All of these sites are easily accessible by bridge…even on foot.
Back in 2005, while working for Parade magazine, I wrote the article that stopped funding for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Ketchikan, Alaska. When I asked people on the streets of Ketchikan whether they thought spending $315 million for their bridge was a good idea, most either felt embarrassed by the project or were thankful that it might create a few extra jobs. Five years later, when I asked local citizens in Pittsburgh about the North Shore Connector, I encountered far more anger. Many asked why the money wasn’t spent instead to improve the existing bus system or to connect Downtown with the heavily populated Oakland neighborhood.
As for the politicians, even though presidents of both parties have been responsible for pouring money into the tunnel’s construction, politicians from both parties have also criticized the project. For example, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, despite being an enthusiastic sports fan, said in 2009, “I wish the project had never started….I guess you've got to finish it, but it's a tragic mistake.”
For American taxpayers, the real question is why we are paying so much money to benefit a casino and two wealthy professional sports teams. Are we now expected to fund similar projects leading to the stadiums of the other 31 NFL teams?
-David Wallechinsky


Sean 6 years ago
i think some funding was also given by the casino and steelers at one point because of the inflation and rising costs. i bet after the 3 yr free pass from downtown this will generate a bunch of money. have you ever walked across the clemente bridge in the winter time after a steelers game? we needed the new tubes :)
Clark 7 years ago
there were originally two projects. the project to oakland was canceled in the mid 1990s. this project remained. the origins of this project are an extension of the light rail system to the airport and to communities north of the city. yes, it services the two stadiums, but in the future, it is intended to service much more. in the interim period, buses on the north side of town will now be able to service the north shore light rail stations directly, reducing the substantial amount of bus traffic downtown. with three rivers in the area, you're going to have to cross them eventually...

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