Monday, January 26, 2009

The Money Pit(t)...The North Shore Connector

2009 "Blackened Gold" Award Winning Story


By Angelo Spagnolo
Editor, "PB&G"

When I first set about planning the rebirth of “Pittsburgh’s Black and Gold”, I stated in my first post that I would occasionally do editorial posts on things other than sports. You know, for variety and all. Sometimes when something really rings my bell, a column will practically write itself, like, say, right now. So since the Steelers are on furlough this week and the Pens are on all star break and the Pirates are … well the Pirates , now seems like a great time to blow off some steam, so let’s get down to important stuff, like that gigantic "sewer line" we’re building under the Allegheny River.

"The North Shore Connector"

Above: The connector plan looked like a good idea until it turned into a real-life "Money Pit(t)".

It amazes me how lacking in dynamic government leadership the Pittsburgh area has always been and yet how great of a city we still have in spite of it. Take the North Shore Connector as an example. This little tidbit was in the news the other day amidst all of the Steelers hooplah: The Connector is going to cost $118 million dollars over the original $435 million cost! Is it just me or is this kind of an “overrun” beyond human comprehension?

This represents a 27.12% increase over the original project cost. 27%!!! Have construction costs really gone up 27%? If so, why? Construction projects have got to be at a record low right now, right? Projects are being cancelled everywhere. Are we to believe that building materials alone are to blame for this? What kind of a contract was this in the first place where the project could be bid out and still have this type of situation occur on the back end for the Port Authority?

Above: Inside the connector tunnel. Right now it's just an overgrown sewer pipe.

Think back to when you may have built a house. When your contractor bid to build your home, did he have the ability to overrun the cost by 27%? Hardly. Your bank would never go for it either. So why was this contract written with an open end? Probably because the people involved are somehow, someway benefiting from it themselves, that’s why. The only other explanation would be because of add-ons and with a project of this magnitude, it's hard to imagine that the army of architects and engineers who designed this could have missed this many things. What we need here are some answers. This whole mess smells to high heaven!

Above: A light rail system helps eliminate many of these diesel burners.

While I am certainly not a transportation expert, I was able to dig up a few interesting facts for this article. For example, once the money to complete this boondoggle is "found", this project will have cost $553 million dollars just to have the novelty of going under the river. That's over half a billion dollars! I wonder what it would have cost to go over the river? What's one more bridge when you're already called the "City of Bridges"? This cost is so exorbitant, that I was able to calculate that at the present cost per hour of operating a PAT bus (about $59 per hour by my best estimate) that the Port Authority could have put two buses on a continuous loop, 24 hours per day, at a cost of $2,832 per day. Of course there would be passenger income to go against that figure, but for the moment, let’s pretend that nobody ever rode these buses. The cost of this project is so high, that we could fund having these empty buses driving around for 188,206 days or 515 years!!! When you factor in paying customers, it stretches it out even further! How long of an amount of time is this? Well, 517 years ago, Christopher Columbus was just discovering America!

Above: Christopher Columbus' home ship, the "Santa Maria". We could have purchased two of these to shuttle patrons across the mighty Allegheny River! Imagine the tourist traffic and wouldn't it be great to ride in a "pirate ship" to or from a Pirate game?

Am I alone on this or has everyone at PAT and the county lost their collective minds at one time? Dan Onorato’s office said the other day that there would be no additional funding coming from there. That’s great Dan, but here’s a good question, where were you when this contract was first being approved? Isn’t it called “The Port Authority of Allegheny County”? Wasn't this project big enough that you would have reviewed the contract?

The next step is that the county is going to appeal to President Obama for help in finishing the project…as if he doesn’t have enough problems already. Then there’s this final nugget, if you aren’t already in the state of near shock over the enormity of this whole situation: If the project shuts down, it will reportedly cost another $21 million just to seal off the four ends of the two tunnels! Which leads me to ask this question: WHY??? What are they planning on using, platinum and trimming it in gold?

Above: This outside view gives you an idea as to the size of the tunnels. Covering four ends of two tunnels would cost $5,250,000 per end! I'm sure that we could accomplish this for much less here at "PB&G". A few two by fours, some plywood...heck we could even put barbed wire around it to keep out the vagrants! I say that we could do it for $10 million, thus saving the county $11 million!!!

I realize that if our area is to continue to grow and develop that we need to improve our transportation. Of course, these two tunnels were dug so that people could be transported from areas to the north of Pittsburgh, not just from the stadiums or the Rivers Casino to the city. So a lot a peoples’ future transportation needs are at stake here. I’m not saying that I’m against this project, only that I’m infuriated with people who are in a position to safeguard the taxpayer’s interests and who demonstrate“oversight” that is as poor as this. This smacks of, "It's not my money, why should I care?" Where's the responsibility Port Authority?

Do you have an opinion on the Connector? Have I missed the mark with this commentary? I'd really like to hear your opinions. Please leave your comments below. I'd particularly welcome opinions from anyone at PAT or the county. Of course it goes without saying that if you're just a plain old outraged citizen, I'll be glad to hear from you too!

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