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Pittsburgh first: A $250,000 automatic public pay toilet, 25 cents per visit

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

New York. Rio de Janeiro. London. Pittsburgh.

The new public toilet on East Carson Street on the South Side won a few stares yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

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In days of old, most toilet facilities weren't exactly commodious

We may not have the Statue of Liberty, white sand beaches or Big Ben.

But what we now have in common with those most cosmopolitan of cities is a computerized, state-of-the-art, heated, constantly disinfected, graffiti-resistant, remotely monitored, well-lit, landscaped, wheelchair-accessible, ornamental-iron-and-brick-adorned automatic public toilet.

Hey, we had to start somewhere.

And where we're starting is on East Carson Street near 18th Street. There, in a corner of the parking lot, inside what might be called a parklet, stands a squat green and black kiosk. It is surrounded by the same brick pillars, ornamental iron fence and landscaping as that of the parking lot and the rest of the South Side. (The city's Historic Review Commission insisted). A closed-circuit TV camera and security lighting are mounted on a pole.

The city's $250,000 automatic public toilet -- APT for those in the business -- is one of only 19 in the world, Richard R. Grasso said proudly.

Grasso, who flew in from New York for yesterday's grand toilet opening, is vice president of business development for Clear Channel Adshel, which provided and installed the APT free of charge.

Clear Channel Adshel offers municipalities bus shelters, information kiosks and, yes, APTs, in exchange for advertising rights on some of the "street furniture." The installation of the APT on the South Side is part of the company's contract with the city to erect 350 bus shelters as well as bicycle racks, litter bins, kiosks, ash urns and benches -- all at no cost. About 164 of the bus shelters have already been erected with the remainder expected to be constructed within the next year.

A second APT is planned, but its location has not been set.

The city, which gets a cut of the advertising, expects to raise more than $2 million a year from Adshel by the end of the 10-year contract.

Despite yesterday's frigid temperatures, Grasso warmed up to his mission of talking toilets and lauded how this one responds to nature's call.

Insert a quarter and push a button and the large door slides open. Inside, it's roomy--10 feet high by 8 feet wide by 9 feet deep.

There are apartments smaller than that in Oakland.

Of course, they don't have a computerized system that cleans and disinfects the interior after each use.

The floor of the APT, made of aluminum and coated with nonslip vinyl, is hinged in sections like a large conveyor belt. After each use, the floor moves on rollers and is sprayed with disinfectant. At the same time, the toilet bowl turns 180 degrees and also is disinfected. The whole interior is dried and 40 seconds later, it's ready for use again.

The mind wanders. What if everything went haywire while you were, well, you know? A rotating floor, spinning toilet, jet sprays ...

Or, what if the toilet paper runs out?

Not to worry. Sensors recording all of the system's functions are monitored at the company's Pittsburgh division offices on Saw Mill Run Boulevard.

"And if somebody falls asleep at their desk here," Grasso said, "this unit is monitored in our New York office."

Three red buttons, two at floor level, provide two-way emergency communication with a Clear Channel Adshel employee's cell phone, who can then call for help if necessary. There's even a redundant system: Should that cell phone not have a signal, noted Adshel's Pittsburgh operations manager Tom Christ, the call is immediately transferred to his cell phone.

Christ said consumer safety is so paramount that the company wouldn't make the APT operational until city firefighters and paramedics were given keys to the unit and schooled in how to enter it if the key doesn't work.

There is one catch -- a 20-minute time limit. Reading "War and Peace" isn't an option. A digital clock with bright red numbers, resembling those used at basketball games, counts down the time remaining. In this arena, there's no overtime. After 20 minutes the door opens to passersby on East Carson, although recorded messages give ample warning that time is running out.

Placement of the APT on the South Side was no accident. Given the neighborhood's notoriety for bar hoppers eschewing inside bathrooms for the great outdoors, the APT "fits the need" of the area, said David C. Lamberger, general manager of the Pittsburgh division.

For now, the APT will be in operation from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

Its promoters feel it will be another source of pride for the city.

Call it Pittsburgh's latest Super Bowl.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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