Transit Troubles in Pittsburgh


Public transit across the US is facing a major financial crisis.  Of course, I was in the middle of one in New York before leaving, and could probably write a book about the topic.  The question of “Why?” is naturally a complex one; I’ll try to offer a very simple, high-level answer.  Since no public transit in the US covers its costs with its own revenues (which are primarily fares paid by customers, but also advertising, etc.), all transit relies on subsidies, and those subsidies have been reduced as a result of the recession – typically in the fashion that transit funding is provided by dedicated taxes, like 1/4 of 1 percent of the sales tax, and therefore ebbs and flows with that revenue stream.  All of this is occurring right after a period of growth and success; 2008 was the highest ridership public transit year in the US since 1956, thanks to a combination of high fuel prices, increased environmental awareness, the revival of many central cities, and the growth of new rail systems in many sunbelt cities…

The famous view of Pittsburgh from Mount Washington.

But the point of this post is what’s happening in Pittsburgh.  I recently found out that the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public transit provider in Pittsburgh, has been forced to propose significant fare increases and a 35% reduction in service for January 2011.  The Port Authority (still known as “PAT” to many locals) was a key player in what I might think of as my “early transit years,” and is quite nostalgic to me.  If these reductions are made, the system will be only about half of what it was when I was in college, and maybe to the point that recovery to its earlier state (which was by no means ideal itself) may be impossible.

Again, the reasons for this situation are many and complicated.  However, the most immediate issue is that  the 2007 Pennsylvania Act 44, which established a long-term state funding program for transit, relied heavily on a plan to implement tolls on Interstate 80 across Pennsylvania, and that plan has been rejected by the federal government.  Why you ask?  Well, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requires that toll revenues be used exclusively for the facility being tolled, and PA was planning to use some of the money to fund transit (although they claim they weren’t, and perhaps it would be possible to use toll revenue from I-80 to free up existing I-80 state funding for transit, but that might be an academic point).  It is worth pointing out here that toll revenue from the bridges and tunnels around NYC is an important part of transit funding there, but of course those facilities are owned locally by either the MTA or the Port Authority, so not subject to the same rules.  The most important ongoing issue that has led to this funding problem is the ridiculous increases in healthcare and pension costs – up an average of 21.8% PER YEAR over the last ten years.  Of course, these costs have virtually nothing to do directly with the fares charged or the services provided.  There’s a lot more to say here, but I don’t want to get too long-winded; if you are at all interested, I encourage you to read the Port Authority’s good and pretty fair/honest FAQ.

One of the first low-floor buses in Pittsburgh, that were brand-new when I was in college. This is one of the "flyer" express routes that isn't proposed to have the premium fare, but should!

Finally, though, a word about their plan.  While transit financing isn’t my primary area, I do know quite a bit about service reductions and fare increases.  I submitted a public comment to the Port Authority through their website disagreeing with part of their plan.  They currently operate a two-zone system, where zone 1 is $2.00, zone 2 is $2.75, and transfers are $0.75.  They are proposing to raise each of these by a quarter, with essentially proportional increases in monthly passes – fine.  They are also proposing to create a new fare category for “premium” service, at $4.00.  This “premium” label would apply to the light rail lines (“the T”) and some, but not all, express or “flyer” bus routes.  Since this would apply to the zone 1 areas on the T, it would mean a doubling of fares for people there – from $2 to $4 per trip, or from $80 to $160 per month.  This, I argued, is ridiculous!  Cushy express buses from suburban areas are undoubtedly a premium service, with high operating costs, and should be priced as such (and I think all of those, not just select ones, which seems to open them up to a host of public relations issues if nothing else).  However, the light rail system serves many inner areas and is not particularly fast or comfortable.

Furthermore, and this is the important bit, the marginal operating costs of the light rail service SHOULD be lower than for buses – because you can carry a lot more people in a light rail car or train per unit of labor (i.e. driver) than on a bus.  If this isn’t the case, such as because of Port Authority’s absurdly antiquated fare collection policy on The T, then they have a management problem that can and should be rectified ASAP.  Of course, there are a lot of fixed costs that apply to rail – maintaining the track and wires, more complicated vehicle maintenance, etc. – but you have to pay for those, many in almost the same amount, whether you run a train once per hour or every 5 minutes.  So, they should be encouraging people to use it – fill it up!  By charging more for it than for buses people will be encouraged to travel on nearby buses instead to save money.

The crazy T setup: high and low-level doors for different stops, and on-board fare collection, which increases dwell times. Get with the 1980s and switch to a "Proof-of-Payment" system!

In terms of the service reductions, this is a tough one.  I’m sure the service planners were given a savings target to meet – and the many, varied ways of hitting that target could be debated until the cows take the bus home (or not if you choose to eliminate that route!).  Do you try to preserve the core routes with reasonable frequency so that they continue to be somewhat useful, at the expense of network coverage?  Or do you maintain service to every corner of the area, but at low and ridiculous frequencies (who wants a bus that comes every 75 minutes)?  Of course, if you try too hard to balance the two extremes you wind up succeeding at neither; but I do urge them to try to keep the busiest routes at a frequency that is somewhat respectable, so that they entire system doesn’t wind up in a total death spiral – say headways of 15 minutes weekdays, 20 minutes weekends. Pittsburgh has solid transit heritage some unique and useful transit characteristics – the busways, the downtown subway, the very busy Oakland corridor, and generally transit-supportive land use and geography – and it would be a shame to see it degrade from a transit-friendly city to a run-of-the-mill place.

Stay tuned to see what happens in this debate – and remember that this same kind of thing, to varying degrees, is playing out across the country.

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Posted on 06/09/2010, in Transit and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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