Onorato disputes responsibility for Pittsburgh tunnel

Posted: July 05, 2010

PITTSBURGH - It is one of the biggest public-works enterprises in Pittsburgh history, a $529 million project to build a light-rail tunnel under the Allegheny River, connecting the downtown area with the sports stadiums on the other side.

Delayed for years and way, way over budget, the North Shore Connector has been controversial and criticized as too costly. State Auditor General Jack Wagner called it "a waste of taxpayers' resources." Gov. Rendell termed it "a tragic mistake."

One question that arose in the May Democratic primary for governor - and that could arise again in the November election - is this:

How much blame or credit for pushing the project forward should lie with Dan Onorato, the top elected official in the Pittsburgh region for the last 6 1/2 years and now the Democratic gubernatorial nominee?

His answer is: not a lot. He says that by the time he was elected Allegheny County executive in 2003, the project was too far along to even consider stopping it.

His critics contend, however, that Onorato can't duck at least some responsibility for the project - good or bad - while at the same time seeming to take credit for every good thing that happens in the county, including even an uptick in the economy.

A recent news release from the Onorato campaign, for instance, bragged that "under his leadership, Allegheny County has a lower unemployment rate than both the state and the nation."

"He can't have it both ways," said Kevin Harley, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Corbett, the state attorney general. "He takes credit for things that have been taking place in Allegheny County for the past 30 years. But when things go poorly while he is in office, it's everybody else's fault. It's the Dan Onorato two-step."

The project, envisioned at $390 million in 2001, has escalated in cost by almost 75 percent. Only the recent injection of $62 million in federal stimulus funds has held the project afloat.

The project, which will extend a 26-mile light-rail system by 1.2 miles, is now under construction and is scheduled for completion in March.

Two perfectly round tubes already have been dug under 25 feet of river water and under another 25 feet of rock and soil. One underground and one aboveground station are being built. Construction is 70 percent complete.

"For anybody who thinks it's a boondoggle, he says he had nothing to do with it," said Republican Jim Roddey, who preceded Onorato as county executive and is now the Allegheny County GOP chairman. "For anybody who likes it, he says it's a good thing. He is covering his bases."

Onorato, in an interview, said Roddey was not quite right. He'll accept some responsibility for the project, he said - but only some.

Far more responsibility, he said, lies with Roddey and numerous other decision-makers, both Democrats and Republicans, who conceived of the project and secured more than $400 million in federal funding, long before he became county executive.

To have canceled the project at that point, he said, would have wasted money already spent on design and would have cost the county more in penalties than to move ahead with the $13 million that was due at the local level.

Eighty percent of the funding is from the federal government, 162/3 percent from the state, and 31/3 percent from the county.

"I take the credit where I'm involved," Onorato said, "and I'll take the heat where I'm involved."

But he said his critics "can't deny that this was a 10- to 15-year project that came to fruition on my watch - at the end of it. . . . I am not running from it; I am not saying, 'It wasn't me.' What I am saying is that they can't stand there and tell you, 'This is his project.' It's simply not accurate, and they know it."

What Onorato did not mention was that before he became county executive in 2004, he spent four years as the elected county controller - responsible for watching over public money.

Before that, for eight years, he had been a member of Pittsburgh City Council.

Wagner, who was one of three Democrats who opposed Onorato in the May primary election for governor, said Onorato should have spoken out against the project at some point. Wagner had done so as a city councilman in the same general period.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, of Philadelphia, another Onorato foe in the primary, repeatedly ran a TV ad blasting the North Shore Connector as the "tunnel to nowhere" and blaming Onorato for it.

Ken Snyder, Williams' media consultant, said polling done by the Williams campaign showed the tunnel to be largely unpopular with voters in the Pittsburgh region.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County, which is building the project, has said the tunnel will do more than whisk fans to Steelers games at Heinz Field and Pirates games at PNC Park. It will give access to the new Rivers Casino and help students get to class at Allegheny County Community College. Two hotels and new office space are opening in the area.

But Gerald R. Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said most people would have preferred that the money spent on the tunnel go instead toward an extension of the light-rail system - known as "the T" - from the downtown area to Oakland. That area of the city is where universities and hospitals are concentrated.

Another favored option would have been to run the T out to the airport, bypassing 18 miles of highway congestion.

"I don't think Corbett is going to let Onorato have a free pass on that," Shuster said.

Corbett, in an interview, said he hadn't decided whether it was campaign fodder but added, "I never understood the purpose of the tunnel."

While the project has "not engendered a lot of public support," Shuster said, it might not hurt Onorato's election popularity in Pittsburgh. There are far too many other issues, he said, on which hometown voters will judge him.

Jared Oyler, 36, a union electrician from the South Hills, agreed: "I think more people are affected by the drink tax."

He was referring to a 7 percent tax on drinks poured in bars. Onorato instituted the tax to provide funds for other types of mass transit.

While waiting for a bus near the University of Pittsburgh Law School, the Rev. Dale Anderson, 56, a chaplain at Presbyterian Hospital, called the tunnel "foolishness."

"There's a perfectly good bridge just about a quarter-mile up from this expensive ditch," he said. "If you wanted, you could run the T across that. . . . It's a legislative boondoggle."

But Onorato predicts that Pittsburghers ultimately will love the tunnel.

Robert Singleton, 43, a construction worker from East Liberty standing on a street corner in Squirrel Hill, said Pittsburghers like big things.

"It's good for our city, a small market trying to be up there with the big time," he said. "A half-billion dollars? You've got to spend it on something."

Contact staff writer Tom InfieldĀ at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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