Bland says, “I came in and we were just about ready to award the construction contract, just in the immediate period post-Hurricane Katrina – the building boom. The construction index was going really out of control so we were seeing bids come in way above our estimates.
“It was a real challenge to the project,” he stresses. “Large public-works projects are controversial no matter what the nature is,” he says. “And rightfully so. People should argue about where public dollars are spent.
“So this project was no different; hugely controversial.” Bland continues, “We were fortunate that we have an outstanding project team — both our internal engineering and external construction staff.”
And they all knew the environment the Port Authority was operating in. “With hose bids coming in high, the team — and when I say that, the true sense of the word, our people, our construction managers, designers, and contractors — they brought in about $40 million of cost-reduction into the project. With bids coming in above $600 million, at the end of the day Bland says it ran right around $512 million.
Aside from the tremendous amount of value engineering, he says the group should also be proud of the change orders on the job amounted to only about 2.5 percent of project value.
“They really kept change orders down to a minimum. And frankly,” he says, “some of the change orders were done as enhancements to the project when we knew those funds would be available.”
The North Shore Connector opened for revenue service March 25 of this year. As a regular rider, Bland says at rush hour it’s running with about four-minute headways and there’s typically 100 to 150 people boarding at his station.
Mid-day it’s running at about seven-minute headways and in the evenings it falls off to about 10 or 15 minutes. “We’re analyzing overall ridership now,” Bland explains. “We want to get past the novelty stage.”
Anecdotally, he shares that there are a lot of venues over there and after the first major event, the Pirates opening game, they got a letter from the Pirates. “By their counts, about 13,500 of their fans, or 13,500 trips were being made opening day by the subway, which accounted for about 25 percent of the game travel.”
And all that controversy that comes through planning and construction, he says pretty much disappeared on March 26. “It took about a week to say, ‘Where can we extend it further,’” he laughs.
“The newspaper that was the most critical of it did a follow up about this parking garage located right on top of one of our stations and it went from about 70 to 90 percent capacity within a week.
“It’s been hugely popular and I think what will be interesting to watch is that there’s still room for development on the North Shore.
“Hope for the best but plan for the worst,” was one of the lessons learned, Bland says. “Always have a backup plan in terms of funding and financing and then for me, a personal role, when you challenge people to a specific role, you can be very pleasantly surprised with the creativity that they put into it.
“Have high expectations of your project team. We have pretty bright people here so they really came through.”
Bus Rapid Transit Before Bus Rapid Transit
The Port Authority has three dedicated busways, which are essentially highways just for buses. The initial one was the South busway, which started in 1977. The Martin Luther King Junior East busway went into service in 1983. And then more recently they extended that line and added the West busway, within the past 10 years.
They are completely grade-separated and have dedicated stations. They were built on what had been surplus of rail right of way. “When the manufacturing economy collapsed, we had an awful lot of freight rail capacity that wasn’t necessary, so the busways were typically built in that excess rail right of way.
“All told, the three busways carry about 40,000 passenger trips per weekday,” says Bland.
The two dominant economic generators of the region are downtown Pittsburgh, which has about 110,000 jobs and the Oakland area, which has about 40,000 jobs and about 80,000 students. “They’re only separated by three or four miles,” Bland explains. “And the neighborhood in between is relatively underdeveloped.”