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Costly rehab down the line

By Jim Ritchie
Monday, July 24, 2006

The iconic Monongahela and Duquesne Heights inclines each day crawl up and down Mt. Washington’s steep hillside, inching ever closer to needing a costly rehabilitation.

Port Authority of Allegheny County directors say the price tag to keep the cars running could reach $40 million — and some want civic, corporate or historical groups to help pay, so the financially struggling agency isn’t forced to spend money that could be used to replace buses or light-rail cars or to pave busways.

“We’ve got to be looking at ways to generate revenue,” authority board member James Dodaro said. “It is a community asset, and it’s something the community should have an interest in preserving. It’s something that shouldn’t be a drain on the Port Authority.”

Some incline riders agree the inclines are an asset for the city and like the idea of having community groups help pay for their long-term upkeep. More than 1.1 million people use the inclines annually.

“When I go Downtown and have to do business, I use it,” said Mt. Washington resident Raymond Batykefer, who rides the Mon Incline frequently. “It’s cheaper, saves me the cost of parking, and it’s pretty efficient.”

The 136-year-old Mon Incline and 129-year-old Duquesne Heights Incline are in good working condition, and a major renovation isn’t anticipated soon. But the authority, which faces a $31.5 million deficit in its 2006-07 budget, anticipates future incline expenses.

“This board has made it a point to direct the staff to try and discover new funding streams wherever possible, and that includes funding streams for projects like this down the road,” Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove said.

Port Authority could tap its capital budget — more than $200 million this year — to pay for improvements, Grove said. But any money spent on inclines is money the agency won’t have to improve bus and subway service.

Finding money elsewhere would not be easy, local nonprofit officials say.

The Allegheny Regional Asset District planned to allocate nearly $75 million this year, but largely focuses on helping parks, libraries and civic organizations — not transit or public works projects.

“There’s nothing right now that would make their application ineligible, but it would be an entirely new direction,” said David Donahoe, executive director of the asset district.

The Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau markets the region but does not help secure money.

“We do not get involved in bricks-and-mortar,” Executive Vice President Bob Imperata said. “Having said that, we’re very conscious of the need to have attractions like the Mon and Duquesne inclines. They’re very valuable assets and important tourist attractions. We market them extensively.”

The bureau has considered using the inclines as a symbol for Pittsburgh’s tourism industry, similar to San Francisco’s cable cars or the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Imperata said.

Advertising companies have pushed local officials to adopt the symbol so they could market incline trinkets, he said.

“This is so historical,” Octavia Coburn, of Rankin, said after riding the Mon Incline. “They’ve got to keep it going. People come here and look for the inclines.”

“This is Pittsburgh — the inclines,” said her husband, Donald Coburn.

Imperata suggested Port Authority might find a corporate sponsor or sell naming rights. The authority has tried to sell naming rights for its Downtown light-rail transit stations without success.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in 1970 declared the Mon Incline a historic structure. Foundation spokeswoman Cathy McCollom said that could help the authority seek money nationwide.

“”Many of the historic preservation grants are statewide, if not throughout the U.S.,” she said.

State grants would offer up to a few hundred thousand dollars and national grants might rise to a million dollars, she said. But getting such money is a competitive process.

One possible long-term solution used elsewhere is charging tourists more money.

The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway in Chattanooga, Tenn., charges tourists $12 for a round-trip. Local commuters can buy a monthly pass that makes the fare about $1.25 per trip.

“One of the reasons we’re focused on it so much is, our incline generates about a million dollars of net revenue a year,” Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Tom Dugan said.

A round-trip fare on the inclines in Pittsburgh is $2.25, whether the rider is a tourist or commuter.

The Duquesne Heights Incline, although owned by Port Authority, is operated by the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Incline. The group pays for maintenance by accepting contributions from foundations and other groups.

Donahoe said the group twice applied for Regional Asset District grants and was rejected.

“I can’t imagine people concerned about historic preservation not coming together to find a way to help,” McCollom said.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at or (412) 320-7933.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633